By: Margaret Brown
THREE YEARS ago, we had to evacuate our home during the terrible fires that swept through the Algarve.
Flames towered above the boundary wall, drowning out all other sounds as we left to spend the night with friends. If a plantation of mature eucalyptus behind the house had caught fire and fallen on the building, we would have lost everything: as it was we had a lucky escape.
Last year a gang of men visited the area, buying up stands of timber for which they paid cash. Aware that our trees were too close to the house for safety, we decided to have them cut down and sold them to the itinerant loggers. It was sad to see the 40ft giants stripped of their branches, heavy with fragrant leaves and bouffant white blossom. Golden Oriole, Woodpeckers and a pair of Cuckoos that in other years had brightened sunny spring days, must find a new platform from which to call. Reduced to two metre lengths and left in scattered piles like ‘pick-a-sticks’, they have lain there ever since.
After nearly 12 months, the area was once again an impenetrable wilderness: the remaining tree stumps had budded to produce a jungle of 10 foot tall saplings and a new fire hazard.
Last week, a man with a JCB cleared away everything down to the bare earth. Today, there is nothing left, but a heap of wood and rotting vegetation: a desert of red dust between our house and a shed in which I have my office. One heavy shower and it will become a mud bath.
A small eco-system has been destroyed, together with a variety of insects and reptiles, which may have hibernated there. Multiply a thousand-fold to understand how much damage has been done across the Algarve by developers spreading their concrete tentacles ever deeper into the land behind the coast.
Meanwhile, deep in the foothills of Monchique and the Odeluca valley, which are already included in the Portuguese Natura 2000 sites, work appears to have ground to a halt on a partially built dam. Objections to the destruction of animal habitats were laid before the Strasburg Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife in December 2002. At that time, it was thought that the Iberian Lynx – the most endangered cat species in the world – was breeding in the area. Although traces seen in 1998 were no longer evident at the time of the Convention, it was felt that this animal might return if the rabbit population was encouraged.
When we visited the site recently all was silent. A large area had been stripped of vegetation, the dam was almost complete and a hill within an oxbow of the Odeluca river partially demolished. The river itself had been diverted through a conduit under the hill on which we were standing. Once the work is finished, in order to create a reservoir, the flow of water downstream must be cut off.
At present, the lower reaches supply a diversity of agriculture, including many fruit farms, all of which will be severely affected. As for the Lynx, the stipulations made in Strasburg if this project were to continue – that is to avoid new roads, motorised water sports, minimal land clearance and no activity during the breeding season to name but a few – were extensive. As an established male claims an area of 20 square kilometres in a stable breeding environment, much restoration and conservation will be needed.
The building blight has not yet reached the hills beside which we live: streams continue to run thinly down toward the sea and the smell of fox is everywhere, which suggests there is a plentiful supply of small mammals to sustain their numbers.
I heard a Cuckoo calling on January 11 and also the following day, while sawing wood for the fire. This seems very early in the season and yet with so many other signs of climate change, very little should surprise those living in the countryside.
This morning, a flock of Starlings landed on a dead cork oak, outside my kitchen window, to the annoyance of an extended family of Sparrows, which already had squatter’s rights. Not liking the garrulous company, a resting Hoopoe flashed its crest a couple of times, before launching into a wonderful display of aerobatics that impressed the starlings not one bit.
With the promise of an early spring, now is the time to sow vegetables, something I think about a lot. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, although this year, with all that bare earth lying fallow, half the work has been done. Every time I drive past our neighbour’s lush crop of favas and see his plough land misted over with green shoots, where last week it was bare, I am amazed at the fertility of such inhospitable looking soil.
Twenty years ago I went for the home grown option in a big way, aided by advice from a Portuguese neighbour. Melons and tomatoes, broccoli and beans, the only thing I harvested, apart from some red hot radishes, was mole rats. These charming little rodents had a way of cutting the roots of plants just below ground level. Standing strong and upright as dusk fell, by dawn the wilted plants were breathing their last. It was a ‘no win’ situation and I gave up.