Untamed vegetation

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.

I have loved gardens from childhood, no doubt because both my maternal grandfather and an artistic great uncle kept beautiful spreads where flowers and vegetables grew on every square inch of tillable soil, and fruit trees were just right for scrumping.

In a fit of nostalgia sparked off by the hippy condition of our Algarvean plot, presently running riot as a result of all that rain followed by a warm spell, the time was ripe for a partial short back and sides.

Following an S.O.S sent the day before, we welcomed the gardener-handyman with open arms. Being a busy man with many irons in the fire, his visits are sporadic which suits our style of husbandry quite well.

I am no gardener, having been used to working on acres rather than fenced household plots, hence there is a large area of rough ground creeping ever closer to our patios and pathways.

Apart from a tailored area round the house and my refuge-cum-office on the edge of the bush, we encourage vegetation natural to the location to grow unchecked.

This year has been especially rewarding with a wide variety of grasses and wild flowers. These in turn have encouraged more butterflies and insects, offering a great source of food for brooding birds and their young. We are very happy with this apart from the usual grumble about sparrows and their messy ways, the eggs of which fall from primitive bundles of hay tucked into the rafters.

They burst on ladrilhos underneath and once glazed over the small raw omelettes, garnished with leaves and grass, stick like glue.

A neighbour’s cat was eyeing up the passing traffic while patiently waiting for hatchlings to go the same way as the eggs, the prospective parents a snack just out of reach.

At the same time, I have been wrestling with metre-long ropes of a highly invasive plant that might be Kikuyu, Bermudian or some other Tryffid type grass.

Tough enough to plait into ropes, fecund enough that within a few days of digging and pulling it is again fingering its way over, under and round the few cultivated flowering plants in front of the house. Woven as a solid mat of grass that was highly favoured by the late Millie the Bitch, her droppings provided sustenance for a large dung beetle living in the earth beneath.

This member of the Scarab family rolled them into balls and when satisfactorily compacted, they were pulled underground to provide a store of food – also to be used as an incubator by the female beetle once she had laid a single egg within the festering mass.

Meanwhile, as the climate heats up and the ranks of little hills south of Monchique begin to dry out, there has been renewed ploughing of firebreaks behind our homes.

Parcels of bush, separated by wide strips of earth devoid of vegetation, are likely to encourage what wildlife there is to remain in the area rather than spread further afield.

According to a Portuguese speaking friend who was walking in the hills the other day, one tractor driver assured her that this was at the request of the hunting fraternity of which he was a member.

Once their dogs had driven game into the open, these ‘sportsmen’ should be able to bag any creature that moved: I hope he was having her on! On the other hand, death by gunshot is surely less painful than by fire as long as it is quick.

With a few really warm days of late, the weather looked set to stay until a series of thunderstorms rumbled by, coinciding with a visit from No.2 daughter – her first for more than 12 months.

Walking to Lagos, meeting us for coffee and setting off home again she saw much more of interest than when riding in a car, and today showed us what was happening in a local river over which we have driven many times without stopping.

The water flows over a shallow weir into a deep pool bedded with boulders. Looking down from the bridge footings we saw a Diamond Backed Terrapin (Cágado) swimming up from the shadows, its flippers appearing iridescent in the sunshine.

On the rocks or half in shadow were several juveniles. Because their numbers are decreasing, these Mediterranean Pond Turtles have become a protected species in Portugal and should not be sold as pets or as a culinary delicacy.

A Great White Egret fishing nearby knew nothing of this as it probed the area in which, at this time of year, terrapins would have laid their eggs in the mud. Other sources of food were clearly visible: we watched water snakes side winding in and out of the rocks and some dark coloured fish and small fry, both of which appeared to be feeding off green weed or slime.

The order Chelonia to which terrapin belong dates back over 200 million years and is one of the most ancient known species found in fossil form, outdating both snakes and lizards. Classed as threatened, their decline has accelerated since the beginning of the 20th century particularly in the southern and eastern United States, where they were hunted almost to extinction.

Salt marshes which are their preferred environment may also be affected by possible global warming, rising tide levels and altered salinity of the water rendering breeding sites untenable.