WHEN WE bought a small farm in 1986, the near neighbours were Portuguese with a few British expatriates living on the periphery, an arrangement which suited us very well. Our agricultural knowledge did not extend to conditions so far south, and it was with respect and gratitude that we listened to the farmer next door. He ran a small flock of sheep and, although not native to the Algarve, he knew how to cultivate the local soil and when to sow according to the seasons. His unstinting help was always on hand, a lorry at our disposal when we needed to buy two-inch pipes for irrigation or visit another farmer with equipment for sale. In the end, he tilled our paddocks and broadcast a first sowing of oats and vetches, supervised the scattering of fertilizer and generally took care of our needs without charge.
A ‘bon vivant’, he made his own wine in a factory attached to the smallholding. Each Christmas and Easter we found a bucketful of seasonal goodies, in which was stuck a bottle of his best vintage. His parties were lethal, the wine, an acquired taste, with which we never got to grips but drank under the scrutiny of his family and friends, eating a variety of courses swimming in pork fat that kept our digestions in turmoil far into the night.
Around 10 years ago, he sold up for a very good price and built a house in the next village. We rarely see his wife Julia but often bump into Manuel, who always describes her state of health as “mais ou menos” with a shrug of the shoulders. We saw him today and the Boss said, “summer has arrived” in his best Portuguese. “Quê?” was the reply, to which I answered “está verâo”. This verbal ping-pong continued for a while with various changes in pronunciation, until the Boss fetched his dictionary from the car and pointed to the word. Manuel studied it, laughed heartily and agreed with us. As we drove away we remembered that he could neither read nor write, a fact that has never held him back in his chosen way of life and he remains a most happy man.
It was hearing the cuckoo that prompted the Boss’s remark, although the bird had been around for some time. Last year a pair of them used our stand of eucalyptus in which to play their courtship games, a remarkable display of formation flying accompanied by non-stop calling. Once the male has had his wicked way, the parasitic female lays up to five eggs, depositing one at a time in various nests made by unfortunate Passerines, the eggs of which are elbowed out as the foster child grows. The parents take no further interest in their progeny. Untaught fledgling cuckoos must find their own way to distant winter feeding grounds without guidance, yet somehow they survive and perhaps return again next spring.
At this time of year the countryside is never quiet. A flock of noisy bee eaters flies over at dawn and dusk as regular as clockwork; nightingales sing beside the disappearing streams and, like echoes bounced from hill to hill, hoopoes keep up their endless and monotonous piping. There are more dogs than people in the locality and, when the moon is full, they sing: not howling but rather a variable chanting in several keys, accompanied by one or more little owls.
And now we have a pregnant bitch on the strength. One of four dogs left behind by an itinerant goatherd three months ago, she chose a neighbour’s black greyhound with which to set up home on our patch. He had taken over Fred’s custom built kennel and she slept nearby. Now about to give birth, she has disappeared, weighed down by a belly full of puppies that no one will want, a castaway herself. Having watched her become skin and bone over the past month, finally we fed her in the sure knowledge that, if she survives her lonely accouchement – for we have no idea where she is hiding – the responsibility for this ready-made family is ours.
As if that were not trouble enough, one of the neighbour’s dogs went missing. He was a close friend of the mongrel we rescued two years ago and they were virtually joined at the hip. Having heard a dog crying out in pain, we searched the hills for two days but without success: and then it was Easter Sunday. After attending the Service in Luz Church and then on to a barbecue, we arrived home at 5pm to find the lost animal asleep in our kennel. Encircling his body was a deep ring left by the steel wire of a pig snare. That makes three dogs snared in this small area over a period, and no doubt there are others, of which we know nothing. While the hunting fraternity carry out their public spirited programme of cleaning up the countryside, is it too much to hope that any snares found are destroyed rather than relocated? Their lack of compassion for creatures upon which their sport depends and the arrogance a gun engenders in otherwise decent people, make the approaching hunting season a time of fear. A 12 bore pointed at one’s face or lead shot falling close by have ruined many a peaceful walk