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Seeing through fresh eyes


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Margaret Brown is one of The Resident’s longest standing contributors and has lived in the Algarve for more than 20 years. As well as Country Matters, she also writes Point of View every week.

IT APPEARS that a neighbouring Portuguese smallholder has dumped his dead dog in the valley near our plot of land.

Victim of an attack while chained, the poor animal was so savaged that it died partly because of its wounds but also, according to the grapevine, due to the owner’s dislike of or inability to pay for veterinary help.

This is nothing new. When we first took over the old farm our neighbour had a flock of about 120 sheep which he grazed in the hills behind, leaving at daybreak and coming home as dusk fell. One day we found a dead ewe that had been dropped over our boundary wall into the top paddock. The Boss, having no alternative, burned the animal on a bonfire.

As we roamed the bushy hills on our horses, from time to time a dead or half eaten sheep, tainting the fresh morning air and home to a noisy cloud of flies, could be seen in a dry streambed or on the track where it fell. A sickly animal that hobbled behind the rest of the flock in the morning, unable to keep up did not return in the evening.

On another occasion, there was an old animal lying under a bush, too weak to stand. We caught up with the shepherd, who was a stranger to us, and asked if it were his, but the only reaction was a shrug of the shoulders and he continued walking. There have been no animals grazing the backwoods for several years and as a result we see and smell fewer foxes, perhaps due to a dearth of corpses.

House swap

Meanwhile, we are taking stock back at the ranch before leaving for Wales and an idyllic place alongside The Haven in Pembrokeshire, one of world’s great natural harbours and base for a large natural gas refinery and storage facility which supplies almost 20 per cent of Britain’s needs.

As a result, the waters are never still, with every size of ship and small boat on the move as well as twice daily car ferries between Pembroke and Rosslare which appear to be docking in the garden of our holiday home.

Knowing that friends will be living in our house while we are away, suddenly I am seeing it through fresh eyes, warts and all. Through comfortable familiarity it is easy to ignore tasks that should have been done long ago and I am so grateful to Maria, who takes the work out of housekeeping.

However, the living room curtains, rotted by the sun and going into holes, were overdue for replacement. On my ‘must do’ list for many months, last week we visited a shop in the ancient heart of Lagos where a Portuguese lady agreed to fit out the four windows by August 12, the cloth was chosen from a range of fabrics at a fair price.

Not only are we exchanging houses but also caring for one another’s animals. Millie lived with our friends for some years before we adopted her and she will be absolutely delighted with their company. We will be looking after two frogs that set up home in the back yard of the house in Wales. Having been supplied with a basin of water fitted out like a mini-pond, nature took its course and, in time, several ‘froglets’ were hatched. They thrived and with no way of exiting the yard, the family appears to be doing well on what insects are available.

Less attractive and more familiar around human habitation is the common Brown Rat which has been giving palpitations to quite a few Algarve residents. These rodents serve a useful purpose as rubbish disposers, but easy access to food and nourishing waste wherever there are people has encouraged them to move in from the backwoods and colonise close by. Then there is the essential chore of filing down their sharp incisor teeth and where better than secluded under the bonnet of a car? Rubber tubing and all plastic parts are fair game, and when the Boss found a pool of suspension fluid under his old Citröen, he expected the worst.

Some friends, both of whose cars were nibbled, wondered not only whether these destructive rodents served any useful purpose in the world, but also felt the same about wasps.

Giant rat

The human race, having evolved at the eleventh hour in the evolutionary process, with delusions of self-importance immediately began to upset the nicely balanced ecosystem. As members of a worldwide Sanitary Co-operative, rats had for millennia disposed of organic waste, but because of the waste bonanza accompanying a human population explosion, they moved in with us. In Uruguay recently, a four million years-old fossil of a rat was found, estimated to be three metres long and 1.5 metres at the shoulder. Despite the hated presence of today’s ubiquitous and shrunken shadow of the original, we have much for which to be thankful.

As for wasps, some solitary species lay their eggs in other insects of similar size and are used widely for agricultural pest control. They are also nature’s most successful single mothers. With social wasps, once the queen has been fertilised, she stores the sperm through winter hibernation, builds a nest in the spring and lays her eggs. The next generation emerges, continues to add to the nest to receive more eggs and feeds a new queen. Eggs of an unfertilised female will hatch into sterile males. It is a long and interesting life history with a hidden warning for the feminists of the 21st Century.