Bugs and Bernard Matthews.jpg

Bugs and Bernard Matthews

By: Margaret Brown

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THE SPEED with which the Bernard Matthews turkey enterprise was given an all clear after mass culling and disinfection has no equal where notifiable livestock diseases are concerned. Although it was not yet known how the infection came about, permission to resume business was given on February 13.

The European Commission decided that infection did not originate from the area in Hungary hit by H5N1 avian flu although Bernard Matthews owns a poultry farm within 150 kilometres of that outbreak.

Looking back to foot and mouth and BSE (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) emergencies in the UK during the previous 20 years, which almost destroyed livestock farming, it is hard to understand the present laissez faire attitude. Have the authorities forgotten that wild birds fly considerable distances, especially during times of migration?

False alarm?

With this in mind, I telephoned the agricultural centre in Portimão a couple of weeks ago, having found a newly dead partridge in the hills behind our house. It appeared uninjured and, as there had been no shooting during the week, I wondered whether they might carry out a test for Avian Flu. Not a ‘dicky bird’ of interest and, as usual, it seemed that I had put two and two together and made five. Having kept the body refrigerated for a couple of days, thinking “what a waste” because it was well fleshed and quite fresh, I dropped it in a rubbish bin.

Recently, British television featured a documentary about a man who picked up animals that had been killed on the roads. If they were in fair condition and to his taste, he cooked and ate them. Being both primary and secondary carnivore, a man given to feeding on carcases joins hyenas, jackals and vultures in the disposal of carrion and gives a new slant to the idea of self-sufficiency.

If this is an example of what lies ahead should the doom merchants of today prove right, the ‘bread winner’ of the family might find himself up to the elbows alongside large and hungry scavengers in his fight to bring home the bacon. On the plus side, he would be helping to dispose of organic garbage, which is an essential part of cleaning up the ecosystem.

Moving on to more pleasant things … out in the unspoilt countryside near home, it is a joy to see signs of spring among the plants and birds. Perhaps because of high temperatures last summer, early wild chrysanthemum, chamomile and geranium are very thin on the ground. Where there had been a carpet of petticoat narcissi in the river valley for some 20 years, few have bloomed and the tall bushes of white heather are dead.

In parts, the land reminds me of my grandfather’s bald head, on which a slight prickling of bristles started to reappear at the age of 86. The skin was visible, but, given time, perhaps a new crop of hair would cover the bare surface. Maybe next season a similar small miracle may see a renewal of flowering plants that have died away and left only the sun baked earth.

Other winter sleepers, not ready to emerge, have been rudely disturbed by our search for kindling with which to light the wood burner. Eucalyptus trees, left standing after the wood cutters came, have been a natural source of firelighters, their resinous bark torn away by gale force winds. Now that has been used up, we are peeling away loose strips still attached to dead trees, and also from those still living, which are going through the natural process of shedding their outer layer.


We were unaware that small invertebrates hibernated beneath the loose covering and found an assortment of comatose insects: shield bugs, plain or spotted in various colours, long beetles in shades of brown and clusters of wasps, all of which were covered up again and left in peace. Spiders, millipedes and ants had exited the log store, but woodlice continued to hide in cracks and under splinters, it was very time consuming dislodging them without damage.

These tiny relatives of crabs and lobsters have lived on the planet with roughly the same physiology and habits for 50 million years. Found fossilised in layers of sediment, their descendents survived countless cycles of global warming and cooling and they continue to live a simple life today. Taking in water by various means and eating rotten wood and dead plants, they revert to cannibalism if the need arises and can survive a wide range of temperatures from minus five up to 42C.

When we lived on the edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, one long room in the old cottage was below ground level: dark because there was only one small window at the far end and also very damp.

An ideal situation for adult woodlice bent on repopulating the district and a disheartening place for a housewife to keep clean: at least twice a week I rolled back the fitted carpet and swept up a dustpan full of assorted generations, from the pale grey newborn to hardy old pill worms that rolled into balls and scattered along the sloping floor.

Although not given to chewing on furniture or soft furnishings, they have a slight shudder factor when crunched underfoot. Belonging to a group of animals known as decomposers, they reduce dead plant matter to small pellets and return nutrients to the soil: but preferably not inside my house.