living in rural Portugal


The lamb

We have had two rainy weeks to end March and start April, with another week of showers forecast. As autumn and what bit of winter we get were dry, we need the water desperately. This rain has washed away the ash from the autumn forest fires and brought up spring grass and plants to green the land again. I have pruned over 120 olive trees and almost finished pruning the vineyards now. Because of the extensive wildfires the government has passed a law that for fifty metres around a house there should be no trees over five metres high, very few trees in any case, and the land under them must be clear. This work has to be completed by the end of May and if it is not done a big fine will be issued, then if the work is still not put in hand the land will be cleared by the local authorities and the bill given to the landowner. I am pushing hard to finish the vines so I can start on the trees and woodlands beside our house.

Our shepherd João brought his flock onto our land yesterday and again today, presenting a forlorn figure slowly ambling through the south olival with his umbrella out against the rain. I watched him as I sat in the study with the log fire burning in the corner, and took this picture from my seat beside my desk, through the conservatory, into the edge of the south olival (olive grove).

After lunch the rain stopped for a while so I togged up and went to prune some more vines. The flock passed beside me and he stopped for a chat; his “We-e-e-e-ll,” bleat makes me smile every time. He had to move on to follow his hundred-sheep flock; they are like an eating machine for grass, making a munching sound as they slowly flow around you, smelling pleasantly of lanolin, grass and, well, sheep.  Nice.

The flock had gone over the hill and I heard an isolated bleat from my south olival. There was a sheep left behind. There was a lamb trying to feed from it. This sheep wasn’t trying to follow the flock but stayed with its lamb. After a couple of minutes I decided they needed help, as the lamb was clearly too tired to follow its mum to the flock. I walked across to it and picked up the lamb; the sheep headed off in the opposite direction, bleating. Long story short, I gave João the wet lamb, he thanked me and said the sheep which had now joined us wasn’t much of a mother.

An hour later the flock came back with him and I saw the little white lamb and its mum again. I remarked that it was hard for such a little thing to walk with the flock and asked how many days old the lamb was.

“Days?” he said, “It’s not got days yet!”

“How old, then?”

“Oh, about two hours. She had it in the olival this afternoon.”

“What, today, this afternoon??”

“Yes, but she hasn’t enough milk for it yet. They stop making milk before it’s born.”   So when I had “rescued” the lamb it was only an hour old!  I asked if it was normal for them to just have a lamb whilst wandering around and he said, “Of course!”

“Oh.”

“Haven’t you seen a young lamb before?”

“Not that young, no. First time for me.  Are there more sheep that might just have a lamb now?”

“You see the ones with a red mark in their back?” From the study window I’d seen about twenty and wondered why only those were marked with a big red “T”.

“He’ll stay in the barn tomorrow and after that . . .” and he shrugged. “They are always running about at seven days, you know,” which I did but only vaguely, being a townie and feeling somewhat simple now. I wanted to give the little lamb a name, and offer the fireside to dry and warm him. And thereby seem even dafter and foreign.

But I’ll be on the lookout now, João !

 

A few minutes later, I asked “What do you call a very young lamb?”

“Cordeirinho or Borrego.”

“And when does it stop being ‘Lamblet’ or ‘Lamb’ and become ‘Sheep’?”

“When you sell it.” Oh.

 

 

Although 0.3mm of rain was forecast for yesterday the sky remained clear with no sign of rain even in the distant Spanish mountains. At teatime a few clouds appeared and water droplets fell for a minute. I was at the far end of our land and didn’t get wet. Was that all? Forecast wrong. But at least it was the harbinger of rain.

At 11pm as I was closing my laptop computer, with the living room windows still open, I thought I heard drops of rain on the “lawn” outside. I went onto the patio and there were certainly sounds of raindrops so I sat on the swing seat and listened as rain arrived, then remembered to put the rain gauge out. I listened happily for the next twenty minutes as the first rain since mid May pattered off the vine leaves and soaked into the bone-dry earth; 3.5mm fell and the air smelled sweet.

after the shower

This morning there was mist hanging on the village and the moisture allowed sounds to carry clearly. I sat and listened to the cockerels dotted around the landscape and the bells of a flock of sheep in a field to the east of the village. It was cool, lovely!

Three days ago I checked the sweetness of the grapes with the saccharometer and found that they are ready for winemaking. However they are not big and plump. After late frost froze off the first crop of baby grapes, then two weeks later in May the same again followed by three months without rain, we are lucky to even have an estimated twelve crates of fruit, under half the usual yield. I decided to hold out for some rain, to wash off traces of ash from the forest fires from the grapes and to get juicier fruit. The first rain for fifteen weeks – at last! Now, at 9am, the sun is hot as usual, but the air feels fresher and smells good.

The muffled sound of a slow propellor aeroplane awoke me this morning, so I knew that the forest fire in Louriçal do Campo was still burning and in its third day. I turned on the television and found (on national news) that there is now a fire even closer to us, on our side of Fundão.

alcongosta fire 14aug 2017 credit RTP

The TV shows scenes of urgent activity and people shouting with flames in the background. Outdoors here, although it is hot weather the sun is not white but orange and glows onto the parched fields where faint ash drifts down.

 

 

As we walk on the patio it swirls around our feet. The air is smoky blue, still and quiet as on a foggy day. There is no sound of birds nor barking dogs, not even tractors today. It’s like the world is waiting for something. There is the smell of woodsmoke in the air.

This picture was taken at breakfast-time from the swing-seat on our patio.

When the wind starts to blow the sun brightens and the blue smoke thins, allowing us to see through and across the valley to our village.

From the patio I can sometimes hear the drone of a fire-plane above the blanket of smoke which lies thick and grey over the Serra de Gardunha near Fundão. Today is a public holiday, Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and normally Fundão would have an extra market day. Clearly that won’t happen now.

alcongosta fire2 credit RTP

Castelo Novo is surrounded by fire and people can’t leave their village. On the internet we find that 300 firemen, 95 vehicles and 12 planes are involved in fighting the fire. Many local roads and even main roads in the area, the A23 and N18, have sections which are closed. This is for three reasons: to prevent rubbernecking, to ensure fire services have clear access, and to avoid cars getting trapped and subsequent loss of life. These are reminders of the huge fire in Pedrogão Grande last month in which officially over sixty people died -word on the ground is more like double or treble that number. The flames consume much of the oxygen from the air locally, so a car engine can’t work; it stalls. Then the car’s occupants die from smoke and asphyxiation. The same in any house in a burning forest, and there are hundreds of these houses hidden in the woods; after the fire there are no trees to hide them and their blackened walls are revealed.

Santa Luzia dam near Pedrogao, empty

Because over 70% of Portugal is classed as in severe drought (and 10% more as extreme drought) there’s little water available to douse the flames. Santa Luzia dam is almost the nearest to Pedrogao Grande and the picture was taken in July 2017. Even the base of the dam is virtually dry, and a fire plane could not fly over the surface to scoop water up from here.

 

 

Our neighbour has just phoned us to say another fire is burning six miles from us. We hope there’s no wind tonight. This picture was taken at 7.30pm from our lawn.

Update, 16th August.

No wind overnight and the bombeiros  have put out the main fire. Several fire planes went overhead mid-morning, going to the current big fire further south in Santarem. The air is much clearer now and the temperatures are back to high 30’s. We had an Amazon delivery at lunchtime and the driver said diversions are in place because power lines are down – in rural Portugal power and phone cables are not buried, they are on wooden poles. Several times we have driven through fire zones to see burning poles hanging from the power lines they once supported.

Sometimes there is poor mobile coverage in forest fire zones because the power line to the mobile phone relay masts have burnt down.

 

 

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