Friday, 26 April 2013

April 22 – As Long as the Grass Shall Grow

(Sheep mowing the grass)

Spring, though beautiful, is not always a joy. Because what do you hear in spring? Here on the island you not only hear the tweettweettweettweettweet of the birds, but also the intimidating wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa blaring through the landscape. There are days when this noise attacks you from all sides and then it’s best to just go back into your house, lock yourself in, close all the windows, doors and shutters and hope that the grass cutting will soon end.

After the first rains at the end of the summer, I am always amazed by how quickly the island becomes green again: everywhere grasses and wild vegetables pop up. In spring this process happens even faster and amid the grasses the wild flowers appear. And I am surprised to see how many kinds of plants can grow on one square metre; on the internet I read it can be as much as 80 kinds!

By the time summer starts here (unofficially at the end of April when the first groups of tourists appear) Lesvos has turned into one big jungle. Some grasslands can even reach one metre in height. It is a magnificent sight to see the fields full of red poppies, other fields coloured yellow by rapeseed, and the ground beneath the olive trees multi-coloured.

Along with that of your neighbours, your garden will change into a wilderness, a green jungle crawling with lots of animals, like snakes. House owners on my plot of land are very afraid of snakes and as soon as they think there will be no more big rains, the trouble starts: all plants have to be cut so that you can’t be waylaid by a snake waiting for you in the chorta.

I am not that afraid of snakes and I certainly do not think that they just leap out of the chorta. But in spring walking through high grasses brings the risk that you could accidentally step on a sunbathing or napping snake. And if it’s a poisonous one, you may be in trouble. That’s why you see the Greek farmers, no matter how hot it may be, wearing boots for protection against these wriggling reptiles.
I myself take good care where I walk and when there is poor visibility because of the dense vegetation, I walk with a stick, pounding the ground, in order to scare the snakes away (who are, by the way, more afraid of you than you should be of them).

You can’t always do this every time at home when need to go to your car or compost heap in your garden. So yes, once a year I get somebody to mow the grass in the garden and I must admit, that even though I love that juicy green so much, when the grasses and wild flowers are cut, your garden has transformed into a something else. Hotels also prefer to receive their guest on a wellmown lawn rather than send their guests wending their way to their rooms through a jungle. So in spring there are days that you are driven crazy from the wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa.

An alternative to mowing is to use a scythe. But if you are not used to work like that you could go crazy. Previously cutting the grass was done by the sheep and goats.

Lots of countries, amongst them Greece, have vast dry grasslands: biotopes with poor and dry ground. Most of these areas are controlled by what grazes on them (like big game in Afrika and sheep and goats in Greece). This used to be perfect: while experienced shepherds kept an eye on the flocks, goats and sheep fertilized the land with their droppings, thus attracting useful insects and their eating kept the grass short and the grasslands in good condition.

But shepherds seem to belong to a profession threatened with extinction. Even in Greece you see less and less of these wandering souls. More and more regions are becoming overgrazed because of the increase in building, because more and more people buy land which they manage themselves, because fewer and fewer people use a shepherd to keep their flocks going. Because Europe gives subsidies for sheep and goats, their number has risen enormously yet these animals have less and less pastures to go to. Different studies, like Desertification by overgrazing in Greece; the case of Lesvos island, warn that those barren landscapes might turn into a desert.

Groups, like the European Dry Grassland Group, are drawing attention to this problem. Grasslands might even be popular amongst some people; I found a blog, The Grass is Greener on the Udder Side, where you can vote for the grassland of the year!

So the number of sheep and goats should be increased, just like the subsidies.

Although it is a traditional event and not one to save the landscape, each year the Greeks try to bring the number of sheep down by eating mountains of lamb at Easter. On May 5th it will be Easter again, but the number of sheep will not go down much because most of the lambs eaten will be imported from other countries like Albania an Romania where they are cheaper.

Actually they should reintroduce shepherds so that the sheep and goats can roam through the lands with more prudence. There still remains plenty of grassland to be grazed, although they will not be all next door. Finding a shepherd will be no solution for the grasslands in my garden. Just imagine the sheep feasting on my strawberries, my mint and herbs and even worse my so carefully cultivated flowers! No, I am afraid that I have to accept this horrible spring noise: wrawwwrrrraaaaaawwwrrrrrrraaaaaawwrrraaaaaa. I wish you a happy Easter.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

© Smitaki 2013

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