Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Fire season

Belén Plains after the fire

Forensic examination suggests that it was a cigarette-end, tossed by the passenger of a car heading in the direction of Trujillo, that started it all. Then a combination of factors took hold. The long wet spring had bequeathed us a tremendous display of flowers, which gradually became hidden by tall grasses. The rank, lush vegetation dried in the course of the summer heat and drought. By June the plains were parched and yellow, as they are every year. By July, the vegetation was tinderbox dry and this year the amount of flammable material was more than usual. To this, add the weather. Days and days of hot and dry conditions and on the afternoon in question a moderate westerly breeze. It was the wind which would have helped the cigarette butt to ignite the  mat of dry grasses in the immediate vicinity, the wind which fanned the flames and the wind which then drove the fire eastwards, from the roadside verge across the grasslands towards the plains of Belén. Within just a few hours, the wildfire had covered over 20 square kilometres, despite the efforts of three helicopters and a plane collecting water from nearby reservoirs to dump across the conflagration, despite the heroic attempts of fire crews on the ground. Eventually  the wind abated, the concerted work of the fire services was taking effect and the advancing front of flames reached the road crossing the plains. It halted. During the night, pockets of fire glowed like tigers' eyes, before being targeted by gangs of firefighters and at dawn came the blessing of rain, the first downpour for weeks. The fire was extinguished.

It was a typical grass fire, racing across the terrain, sometimes leaving little pockets of ground untouched, islands escaping the blaze, under a tall column of smoke, looking like a thunder cloud and carrying downwind the cloying smell of burning. Mostly trees and shrubs were scorched, but only where the grass had been denser were their trunks charred. Olive groves in the path of the fire that had been well managed, with heavy sheep grazing keeping the ground vegetation closely cropped, will have lost most of their olive harvest this year, but the trees will have survived. 

Fires are a part of the Mediterranean ecosystem. Natural fires would have been caused by lightening (and it is thought that between 2-10% of modern fires are caused this way). Native plants are adapted to periodic fire. Grass fires quickly burn the dead vegetation leaving the seed bank in the soil unscathed - indeed some species of Cistus produce two types of seed: those which germinate with moisture and those which require heating first of all. The fire will have released nutrients from the vegetation and come the rain in autumn there will be a vivid flush of new growth on the charcoal black pastures. Indigenous trees are often well adapted too: the best example is of course the cork oak. We have fires to thank for the evolution of cork as means to insulate the tree from fire. Holm oaks will sprout back from the ground. By July birds on the plains should have finished nesting, so hopefully the bustards and larks should have escaped the blaze. Many reptiles will have been able to find refuge in holes in the ground or in stone walls, although some will have perished. Mammals I suspect will have suffered more.

But wildfires today are not crossing tracts of virgin ecosystem. The fire on Belén blasted farmland and small orchards, people's livelihoods. The pasture will recover, as will most of the trees, and although almost all of the traditional stone buildings were more or less unscathed, some farmers lost barns full of hay and straw. Tragically too, despite valient efforts to move livestock, some animals too were lost. Fires bring fear and anxiety for all of us during the summer months. 

I stood and took the photo above. The Belén Plains, a Special Protection Area for birds,  landscape where Great Bustards and Stone Curlew roamed in a soundscape dominated by Calandra Larks, now a vast cinder. A few sheep explored the foreground, whilst in the distance white dots betrayed the presence of dozens of White Storks, picking up the remains of dead invertebrates. The bustards, Stone Curlews and larks will be back and by the spring there will be few clues left of what had happened. Thus I tried to find some solace, amidst the sadness and anger that the view in front of me provoked.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sun and shade

We are in the middle of the first heatwave of the summer. As I write it is 4pm and in the shade of our porch it  is 36 degrees Celsius. The hottest time of the day is between 6 and 7 pm, so I expect it will hit 38 and then remain above 30 degrees until nightfall and the forecast is for another week of this weather, at least. Thanks to our relative altitude here (about 630 metres above sea level) and north-facing aspect, we are a comfortable two or three degrees "cooler" here than nearby Trujillo. Even so, the best place to be at this time of day is indoors, where the old thick mud-and-stone-built walls of our house create the perfect conditions for escaping the heat to read, write, rest or take a siesta. The day is long enough for one to feel that outdoor activities, for a few hours at least, can be put to one side.

I love the pace of summer in Spain, a sensible slowness takes over every living thing. Here in rural Extremadura, outdoor work is now pushed to the first few hours of the day or into the evening, with everything shutting down in the heat of the afternoon. It appears that nothing is out in the sun. Even the trees seem asleep. Birds are resting and going to extraordinary lengths to find shade - look on the shady side of a telegraph post and perched on the wire, as close as possible to the post will be a Magpie, Lesser Kestrel or Iberian Grey Shrike. Even the butterflies withdraw from the full blast of the sun at this time of the afternoon. The photo above shows the dehesa landscape in summer, where each tree gives shade and therefore refuge and each canopy contrasts dark green against the yellow-gold of the parched ground - an intricate patchwork of sun and shade.

But there is plenty to do. The garden needs lots of attention, especially the vegetables. I have a 300 litre water tank in the vegetable garden, from which I have set up a drip-irrigation system to keep the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, and cabbages watered. This gets filled everyday from one of our boreholes, a task which Patrick helps me do each evening, with the water entering the tank, crystal clear and deep-ground cold, refreshing us as it gushes out of the pipe into the tank.

The mid-summer produce (see photo above) is looking good this year. Claudia and I find some shade in the evening to sit and watch the butterflies - like this Spotted Fritillary coming to the Buddleia, or the antics of the Nightingale bathing in the foot bath of the outside shower. A time to recharge batteries, reflect on the busy season that has just finished and starting drawing up plans for the rest of the year. But most of a recovery of quality time together.

It truly feels like the middle of summer, and yet the evidence for the turn of the year is building up. This morning I went out at dawn to the rice fields where the number of autumn passage waders is slowly increasing. Last month Green Sandpipers and Lapwing had arrived, now as well as three Black-tailed Godwit, there were two Wood Sandpipers and an interesting party of male Ruff, twelve in all, with blotches of colour on their plumage, remnants of their spring courtship garb. From their vestigial lekking behaviour, as they crouched and ran towards each other, turned and twisted, it was almost as if I was watching them on a wet meadow in Holland, instead of atop a sandy bank in Extremadura, alongside Collared Pratincoles and Black-winged Silts. Nearby four male Little Bustards, their nuptual challenges now forgotten, were feeding on an irrigated pasture. Over the next few weeks others will join them, the group growing in size and becoming a winter flock.