By Margaret Brown [email protected]
Margaret Brown is one of the Algarve Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years.
While the bray of a donkey and rumbling cartwheels are no longer heard in the valley, a few country noises still remain.
Encouraged by the very early spring, a large flock of collared doves, now permanent residents on our plot, begins calling well before sunrise. With biological clocks in overdrive and paired flying displays from dawn until dusk, it is no surprise to find empty white egg shells lying about the place. Some may have fallen through their rudimentary nests of sticks but those neatly broken in half and licked clean look like the work of a mongoose.
This small mammal is known to climb trees and is related to both the genet and the meerkat (Genus Herpestes). Perhaps because the hunting fraternity has been more careful and is better trained than it was, both the grey and brown varieties of Egyptian mongooses are beginning to return to this area.
Being catholic in their tastes, they will eat insects, fruit, carrion and small birds as well as their eggs, and being immune to venom will also kill and eat snakes. Known to be carriers of Leptospirosis and also one type of Leishmaniasis, their presence may be a mixed blessing, but it is always a delight to catch sight of one streaking through the bush.
However, another rural wake up call has been silenced forever. Weighing in at six kilograms and getting on in years, the rooster was handsome, proud and loved the ladies overmuch. We ate him last Sunday at the table of our friend next door and now his hens will be able to regrow their tail feathers, peck around in peace and concentrate on laying eggs until his replacement arrives.
As a result of sharp frosts in January, the cistus-covered hills behind our house show little of their bridal glory to which we, and the bees, look forward every year. Blossom is widely scattered but so are the honey bees, local apiaries having moved on.
Bumblebees predominate as they draw nectar from the flowers with a constant deep hum, bringing to mind the summer meadows of my youth untouched by chemicals and bright with wild flowers.
This year, Odiáxere town fruit and vegetable market has no honey to sell, a local product sold in litre jars and used everyday for breakfast. The supermarket variety is sweet and sticky but bears little resemblance to the flower fragrant thick and golden ribbon with which we decorated our cereal each morning.
Since 2008, there has been an escalation of hive deaths worldwide. Given the general name of Colony Collapse Disorder, the probable cause is a wide spectrum of diseases plus the overuse of insecticides which, together with the growing of gene modified crops, may have weakened the immune systems of the honeybees.
This is bad news for farmers for whom the bees’ work of pollination is vital to successful food production and, by definition, is also bad news for the human race.
In Somerset before we emigrated, we lived on a smallholding alongside the old Bristol to Taunton coaching road on the westernmost out crop of the Mendip Hills. Backed by gruffy ground excavated by the Romans for lead and in an area where insecticides would not have been used, our bee hives were a cornucopia of delight.
A mixture of apple, plum and pear blossom as well as that of native trees and wildflowers supplied most of the nectar, together with heather from Blackdown which lay just across a valley from our cottage.
Designated an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) together with neighbouring Rowberrow Forest, it was there that we rode our horses almost every day. Places of mystery and adventure, with roe deer roaming wild and whatever pheasants had escaped the guns liable to fly up and spook the horses. The forest, where sinkholes caused by subsidence into limestone cracks made it advisable to keep to bridle ways, opened on to Blackdown and the highest point of the Mendips.
It was an area popular with cavers, who liked nothing better than to spend their time exploring warrens of passages and chambers deep in the limestone rock. Occasionally, heads clad in goggles and hard hats popped up from a hole in the ground ensuring a rapid dash up the steep hillside for any riders passing at the time.
Back in 1940, Blackdown was used as a “Starfish” site, a dummy town complete with street lights and blazing ‘incendiary’ fires having been built to divert German planes from bombing nearby Bristol. However, this fooled nobody and the city was raided night after night with great loss of life.
A far cry from the peace of Algarve countryside, although last week when we found traffic queuing along the bridge over the river Bensafrim into Lagos we thought the daily battle of Barlavento motorists had produced another accident.
Yellow coated police were sending some cars into town but others, including us, were diverted into a fenced compound. Our documents inspected, we were about to leave when a white van shot in beside us. The furious driver threw open his door and began effing and blinding before his feet touched the ground.
Leaping out followed by a beer can, he cursed every policeman within spitting distance using plain North English vernacular. Time to leave, and ashamed for our fellow countryman, we continue to wonder how it all ended.