Wildlife in mid October

The autumn rains had just started so the brown parched soil turned to a green lawn in a few days. Bird-wise, the lesser spotted and green woodpeckers were noisy, as were the azure-winged magpies and jays feeding on the ripe figs still hanging on the trees. We saw and heard some migrant robins setting up winter territories, and some warblers, great tits and blackcaps  were singing increasingly. At dusk we heard little owls and tawny owls. But most exciting spots were some ‘eagles’ high on the thermals. Rob spotted a couple and then suddenly we could see 15 or more. We think they were Griffon vultures on migration…or maybe not!

P1070693 (2)

Griffon vultures?

The carobs were in flower and humming with bees. A few butterflies were also dashing through: whites, clouded yellows, a couple of swallowtails, the geranium bronze (a non-native which we seem to see every visit) and painted ladies. I saw a very large butterfly fly across which could have been the two-tailed pasha: they apparently feed on ripe figs of which we had plenty. On our only walk up the valley we saw a blue on the gorse, which I think is a Lang’s short tailed blue from photo ID at home. Dragonflies were zipping about with little hope of proper ID, but may have been emperors and darters. We turned up a family of juvenile geckos under the roofing sheets and spotted some juvenile lizards hunting under the fallen nespara leaves.

In the evenings the midwife toads were peeping and the cicadas calling. The council had (unfortunately) installed bright new LED street lights (everyone is entitled to a street light outside their house) and we watched bats chasing moths through the lit-up area.

On our walk up the valley alongside the track we also saw a patch of flowers that included a couple of autumn crocuses (Colchicum autumnale) some pretty autumn snowflakes  (Acis autumnalis) with a red stems and  a few autumn squills (Scilla autumnalis).


Grapes and more grapes

The late spring rains brought a grape bonanza to Santa Catarina and for once our vine still had edible bunches of a juicy rosé-coloured grape – what a tasty delight.  The neighbours each side also bought round their grape surpluses – all three types tasted different though of course ours were the nicest. Our neighbours also brought us a Sunday lunch ‘cantina’ of hot home grown sweet potatoes…we are so lucky to be part of a community – even with very little understandable verbal communication.

The weather was mixed – the autumn rains had arrived earlier than many years – so the first job was to create a woodshed in the outbuildings and cut and stack some wood ready for Christmas. Rob also connected the woodburner up with the flue outlet he had modified at home: it’s a whole year since we bought the stove and started the game of finding parts to fit the outlet and link up to the chimney pipe sticking out the wall.

The next sunny day was a painting day. On my last visit I tested some blue powder paint in the white to try and recreate a blue that we’d found on the old plaster. This time it was applied, with stunning results! On another sunny day I painted the metal chairs on the roof terrace. These were left behind by the last owners – they couldn’t be removed from the house because the front door was rusted up and the back door was too small. Once the door was openable again, we hoisted them onto the terrace to be used for evening drinks, listening to midwife toads and cicadas.

Rob’s chosen task of the holiday was to start lime-mortaring the wall on the front terrace. These wall/seats are traditional for this style of house in the Santa Catarina area and worth preserving. It seemed to work really well – next time he will attempt the next stretch which is far more dilapidated with a backward lean.

Other jobs included widening a step onto the roof terrace, lots of pruning of new growth from the base of the olives, shopping for light fittings (the new IKEA) and windows (the new Leroy Merlin) and… relaxing. The olives that had been pruned last winter had put on loads of growth. But after last year’s heavy crop…virtually no olives for oil. Luckily we were given plenty last year.

The floor plan

I thought I would upload the most recent floor plan to make it easier to understand the layout of the house, before I put any more ‘before and after’ photos on my blog.

This is the plan that went to the planning department back in October 2016, yes, two years ago this month. It’s been back and forward since then, largely for background information rather than the plan itself which just involves knocking through some windows. The issue is all about how it was previously registered (as a ruin) and how much of it was registered – like the sheds at the back, one of which we hoped would become a workshop. Enough to say that I believe it is in the pipeline…

espartosa house plans v1The house is basically in thirds. The living quarters on the south side  were made up of three rooms, with a door going under the stairs into the animal side.We blocked this up (even I had to bend) and the builders knocked through a new doorway in the middle room. They also opened up the space by knocking through a doorway on the west side and later built a new wall to create a bathroom. This is the part that has been restored and the terrace out of the front door is where we usually sit, under the nespara tree.


The middle third was also in three ‘rooms’ and had the remains of a roof laid on canes over part of it, feed troughs and piles of rubble. The floors were on different levels,  lower than the main house creating quite cell-like spaces, but these have now been levelled.  We took down a wall in this space and the builders rebuilt the external wall, put in new doorways and roofed this whole section. The stairs  go up to the roof terrace and upstairs rooms from here and there is a door into the old kitchen.


To the eastern side is the old kitchen with a bread oven and a massive chimney with nails banged in, presumably to hang the sausages up to smoke. It has a doorway to the outside (through which water from the terrace was tending to run) and the old electricity box! For want of a better space, this will become a larder and bathroom.


The northern third was the most derelict and was covered in brambles, small trees and rubble when we first visited, to the extent that we couldn’t get in there! The big holm oak overhangs the western side and the corner is gradually falling out. This too would have been animal quarters but there was also a ‘modern’  cubicle which had been used as a toilet or shower space. These days it is my outdoor washing up space!


Upstairs are two rooms called ‘sotao’ and the roof terrace. These would have been storage and drying rooms which unfortunately have low height doorways. I hoped that when the builders redid the roof they could have raised the lintels more but the need for a ringbeam to stabilize the walls prevented that unfortunately. The roof terrace is a lovely place to drink beer in the evenings and listen to cicadas and midwife toads.

Progress pics – the east terrace

This is the terrace between the old kitchen door and the outside bread oven, on the east side of the house. When we bought the property it was romantically overgrown!










How do you choose your olive oil?

During the June visit, my Dad and I did something touristy and went to visit an olive oil farm in Moncarapacho, called Monterosa. The tour group was shown around by one of the family and was of course  fascinating.

Olives have been cultivated for a long time – evidence of pressing olives has been found  in Mesopotamia and dated to 6000 years ago. The Romans developed and spread the cultivation across Mediterranean Europe and it continued from there with  different strains bred to produce different fruit.


Monterosa is a very old farm. This columned avenue, on the edge of the farmyard, is part of an Arabic irrigation system. The Arabs were in Portugal for a couple of hundred years after the Romans left about 800AD.

Montarosa is a small-scale family farm growing olives for a high quality extra-virgin oil market. To achieve this,  they use a holistic management strategy that prevents any synthetic spraying and reuses any waste products, so for example the waste pulp is composted for fertiliser and the prunings are chipped down for mulch. All extra virgin olive oils have to be free from any defects and have low acidity (0.1 to 0.5) so a sample from each batch has to be officially tested and approved.

The level of care going into production is extraordinary. The olives are hand-picked off the trees by a team of 30 people over a couple of weeks, but only enough at a time that can be pressed the same day. They are picked over to remove any damaged fruit or leaves and then start the cold-pressing process.  This involves washing, crushing and spinning the pulp gently so that centrifugal force separates the oil from the water and solids. The temperature of the olives is carefully controlled using icy water (no more than 28 degrees) throughout the whole process. Hence cold-pressed.


Modern day technology used to undertake an ancient process

After the tour we sat down for the oil tasting: sniffing and sucking through the teeth. Sea salt in between samples to clean the palate. The smell (fresh mown grass?) and the flavour (tropical fruits, peppery kick? Mild or strong?)

And so when faced with a row of different olive oils, how do you choose?

  • Choose Extra-virgin: best for salads. Not as important for cooking, although the different oils can impart a different flavour to food.
  • Choose one in a dark bottle. The light causes it to oxidise.
  • And choose one that has a country of origin. If it says EU, then it will have been bottled in the EU but might contain oil from anywhere in the world.

What is the next big thing in the olive oil industry?

Well, olive oil is already known to be beneficial to health and high in anti-oxidants but now scientists are creating an concentrated oil that acts like a medicine: one spoonful a day.



Cryptic camouflage!


Can you see what is in this pile of dead grass?

P1070292 (2)

Preying mantis. I’d picked up this pile of grass to move it and didn’t seen the mantis till I put it down again.


Can you see it?

P1070272 (2)

A wall brown hiding among the stones. It was flying near me along the track and I saw it land but just had to point and shoot because it was too camouflaged for my eyes!

Warmer in Wales!

First week in June and it was warmer in Wales according to the pilot. Not that I begrudge Wales because cloudy skies like an English summer are a pleasant bonus while in the Algarve. It was mid 30s when I was there in June last year, so 15 degrees lower this week.

In people’s gardens there were apricots and peaches to pick and poppies, wild carrot, chicory and honeysuckle were in flower on banks. The three trees we put in at Christmas (quince, apricot and persimmon) and the small pomegranates we put in previously all looked well (they were not in leaf on our last visit). Lizards and geckos scuttled about, southern gatekeepers and wall browns were patrolling, and the golden oriole was very vocal. Wildlife highlight was a spotted fritillary that I saw while out for a walk up a nearby valley.

P1070254 (2)

Spotted fritillary

P1070256 (2)

Lovely meadow where fritillary was seen

Our land had had its summer disc-cultivation which turns the soil to a brown lifeless powder. I hate the fact that all the vegetation and its wildlife goes, but we continue the practice because the dried-out stalks would be a fire hazard for our house and the neighbours. They tend to cultivate their land in March or early April when the vegetation is green and puts some humus into the soil and it also gets some of the later rains penetrating. But what about all the butterflies, bees and moths in their main season?

P1070314 (2)

Our new apricot amidst the cultivated land

I hate the thought of visiting at prime flower season and only having bare soil. I have also asked them to do ours in late May because I want the flowers to set seed but I’m not entirely sure it’s the best practice: they too have diverse flowery fields in spring and I have a feeling our tall oat grasses are denser than they were before. Ideally I think we should strim it early to reduce its dominance but we don’t have the kit. The clay soil gets incredibly compacted where it hasn’t been cultivated, which may well then increase the overland flow of water when it does rain.


My developing garden flowerbeds on the west wall, only remaining vegetation

By laying out posts and stones I have created some zones on slopes that I don’t want  cultivated. This year the tractor driver managed to avoid two of the defined areas (last year he ignored all but the posts which he thought were new trees) but he still struggled under an olive branch to do a slope by the stream which I thought was clearly marked to be avoided. He is far too efficient for my liking at getting right into corners and edges. The old man next door uses fixed tine harrows which I think would be more forgiving than discs, but my neighbour arranges it for me and my Portuguese isn’t good enough to ask the old man.

P1070196 (2)

The slope that wasn’t cultivated looked a picture with a thin covering of thistle plants  and was buzzing with life, but the clay soil was capped solid, so it will be interesting to see how it develops. I have planted some tiny native medronho (strawberry) trees on there and hope that some perennial native vegetation will develop. I would love it to look like the meadow with the spotted fritillary!

Wildlife in April

It’s so fantastic to walk out from the hovel and see so much wildlife. The flowers in particular are amazing in April and the hillsides are peppered with white gum cistus flowers. There were a few butterflies zipping about in the heat:  mainly Spanish Festoons, whites, Cleopatras and the odd clouded yellow, small copper and blue. Tricky identifying them when they fly so fast. At home I saw several lizards basking on my flowerbed rocks and the odd gecko hiding under tiles and blocks. No snakes for several visits now. The walling crew dug out the dangerous black-striped yellow-legged centipede Scolopendra cingulata, rearing and weaving about to protect itself. All 13cm or so of it. Pete had been warned about this species (this was our fourth) so it was good to actually see one!



P1070012 (2)

Spanish festoon, at dusk