Casualties and calamities

news: Casualties and calamities

WITH CONTINUING heat and no appreciable rain since February, the leaves are turning on our neighbour’s vines.

Although both bunches and fruit are small compared with last year’s crop, the sugar content is likely to be high and the harvest early. There is an orange grove alongside and, for the last six weeks, the farmer has been using a gas gun to frighten away flocks of pigeons, many of which seem to have decamped to our plot of land.

At the last count, a dozen ring doves and more than 50 sparrows were scratching for food by 8am this morning. Knowing that they are short of food, I have been scattering seeds – rather to the Boss’s disgust! Next spring, he will be battling a plague of passionate and prolific small birds, intent on building among the patio beams. With suitable trees close by, we keep hoping they will get the message and move on.

When we came to the Algarve in 1986, sparrows were on sale for human consumption and as freezers arrived in the local supermarkets, packs of six, small, feathered corpses appeared alongside hares and rabbits still wearing their fur. These birds being an endangered species in parts of England, it seems right to stop that happening here. Bearing in mind the damage that a long drought, extensive fires and loss of ground cover are doing to Portugal’s wildlife, it seems imperative to help as best we can. As for the gas gun, it sounds like a 12Bore firing at irregular intervals from dawn until dusk, and while Fred, the hunting dog, ignores it, Bess has been reduced to a bundle of nerves. Rescued from misery 10 years ago, she has never recovered completely from past ill treatment and grows worse with age.

Another casualty of the dry year has been a venerable cork oak standing close by my kitchen window. Home to many different birds and a welcome source of distraction when I should be working, it is with sadness that we have watched it die over the last few months. One twig after another lost its leaves, became brittle and was broken off by the strong winds. Now the tree is dead, the crown defoliated and there will be no cork to cut in the year 2013. It was harvested last season and if it were already sick then, perhaps, that was the kiss of death.Yesterday I watched a tree creeper feasting on the bugs that have moved in to start the process of returning it to dust – something that will take many years to come about. Now a danger to the house, it must be lopped to prevent branches crashing down during the winter gales. Three stout trunks joined at the foot will be left to remind us of the good service it has given to man and bird during a long and productive life.

One morning during our first year in the valley, a man arrived on his 50cc motorbike carrying a sack, a rope and an axe. We had no common language and it wasn’t until he began to attack this old oak that we found out why he had called. After stripping the rest of our widely scattered trees of their bark, he handed us 8,000 escudos and left as noisily as he had come. At that time, we had no idea of the value of the crop, but found out later that we had been sold short. Last year, we received 400 euros for half the amount of cork, the remainder of the trees having been sold along with the farm. The next cut is not due until the year 2013, by which time we may no longer be around.

Lately, I have spent more time on the computer to escape the destructive rays of the sun, only to find these high temperatures addle my brain. One misplaced click despatched a treasured folder beyond recall and it is probably on its way to outer space right now. Next, my sweaty fingers and clumsiness scrambled the whole set up – Windows XP went on strike and I had to pull the plug knowing that a severe telling off awaited me on re-booting. To add insult to injury, I lost my credit card, cancelled it, ordered a replacement and, within an hour, a friend telephoned to say she had found it. All trivia compared with the disastrous fire raging across central Portugal that is destroying a complete way of life in the interior. If the rush down south to bury their heritage under tons of concrete is repeated further north once the ground is bare of vegetation, precious little will remain of an agricultural people noted for its peaceable ways, its produce, and for the skilled arts and crafts as relevant today as it was centuries ago.

English speaking people who love this country owe a great debt to John and Madge Measures who, for decades, have travelled all over keeping a record of beautiful and hidden places few of us would otherwise know existed. Published in books and in the local British press, as well as lecturing tirelessly to visitors and residents alike, together they have revealed a way of life still viable and going quietly about its business where tourists rarely penetrate. It is to be hoped that John may soon regain his health.

By Margaret Brown