By MARGARET BROWN
TOUGH FOR holidaymakers who landed at Faro last weekend just in time for a couple of day’s heavy downpour, but a source of joy and satisfaction to gardeners and farmers. Not forgetting wild plants and animals, for which it has been a very long and thirsty summer.
Within 24 hours, a sprinkling of fungi had popped out of the red earth: a pearl headed advance party of puff balls above the parapet, soon to be followed by an army of assorted colours and sizes. Edible wild mushrooms take a little longer to shoulder a way through and are unpredictable in habit. Last year’s bonanza becomes next autumn’s total absence, but the delicate matting of white filaments below ground is just biding its time.
For those who enjoy the satisfaction of a free meal, a sharp knife, a basket and a reliable knowledge of edible varieties is essential – to pull them up instead of cutting will damage and weaken the underground support system for future crops.
A few years ago, after some overlooked supermarket mushrooms had produced spores, I mixed them with rain water and dribbled the grey soup across a paddock. Since then, there have been enough for a small meal each season.
Unlike Britain, with its wild blackberries, nuts and sloes, little else that is edible flourishes among our hills and valleys. However, when we first arrived in the Algarve, a neighbour from the farm next door introduced me to various herbs with medicinal properties, and also blueberries, about which I have reservations, not wishing to poison the Boss.
Occasionally, Fred the dog finds something to fill a corner, coming home from the hills after an absence of a few hours with an air of satisfaction and a squeaky stomach. We are left in no doubt that he has killed and eaten: lying at our feet in the sitting-room, from time to time he releases silent, but deadly fumes, enough to clear the place of visitors and guarantee banishment to his night quarters.
It is the natural order of things that almost every creature has a predator, but, like Fred, the skunk carries its own deterrent and, if frightened or attacked, can spray a noxious liquid up to 10 feet away. Knowing very little about this North American native, I asked Google for help and up came several titles: how to grow it, store it, save the seeds, process it and enjoy it. Cannabis by any other name, of which I had no idea, but now I know all that is necessary to become a “pot head” should I wish to, which seems highly irregular.
Back on safer ground, local wildlife has been of major interest the last couple of days, possibly stirred up by heavy thunderstorms and the approach of winter. A downpour of monsoon proportions had left standing water on the patio and a snake, unable to make progress, lay marooned in a large puddle having been dislodged from its hiding place. The snake was about two feet long, very slim and with a skin of black velvet marked with grey diamond shapes: the absence of scales suggested it was from this year’s hatching. Upset by the camera, it made an extra effort to get a grip and, with a little wheel spin, slithered step by step to drier territory.
The following morning I was saddened to find a dead Egyptian Mongoose on our patch of grass: being on the small side and weighing only two kilograms, it may have come from a litter raised this spring. Rigor mortis had set in, but it was unmarked by injury and looked to have gone peacefully.
I have had several encounters with these local residents. On one occasion, while cantering along the edge of a stream, I saw a mother and baby on the opposite bank. They ran beside us for a few yards, outpaced my horse and peeled off into the bush. Again, some years ago, just before dark, one of our young dogs grabbed a full sized adult from behind, but had to release it after what sounded like a cat fight. It was just as well, because with its sabre tipped feet – that have an uncanny resemblance to tiny human hands – the damage potential was enormous. Naturally shy and well camouflaged, the animal was rooting inside a dense shrub and had dropped its guard for a moment.
Mongooses live on insects, birds’ eggs, young birds, fallen fruit and also take chickens. Poison bait laid by an aggrieved poultry farmer might explain the small and rigid corpse lying out in the rain. I bagged it up ready to put in a rubbish bin and, having dumped it, felt guilty not to have carried out a proper burial alongside our seven dogs and two horses. The question arises whether underground water sources become contaminated by seepage from an occasional interment of deceased pets, or whether ants and other insects strip them bare before this happens?
When our original borehole was tested it was found to be highly contaminated by faecal organisms and unfit for human consumption, the pollution coming from a neighbouring piggery where the slurry ran directly into the ground above the aquifer. The present well is 300 feet down and taps into the same lake. Cattle have replaced the pigs, but as no test has been taken, we drink only bottle water.