Portugal is one of the safest countries in the world, but this week a small band of axe-wielding men have been cutting through our nearby forest.
Armed and dangerous, they have been tearing at the trees and leaving small piles of beautifully cut and stacked strips of cork bark on our dirt track ready for collection.
The temperatures are soaring here, and the cork oak harvest is well underway in the Alentejo.
Portugal currently produces nearly half the world’s cork – much of it for wine bottle stoppers.
So this week I’m ignoring what’s inside the bottle and focussing on what keeps it fresh.
We have a load of sobreiros (cork oaks) on our land, and we found out pretty quickly that they are extremely well protected as Portugal’s national tree.
Even pruning them needs a special licence and the fines are high for chopping down these stalwarts of the Alentejo landscape…even if they have died.
We hope our friend Lionel the chainsaw man will be back in the autumn to help us prune ours properly and keep them healthy, but for now he is fully focussed on the cork harvest.
It takes more than 40 years for cork oaks to produce a thick enough bark for bottle stoppers, but after that they can be harvested every nine years…and the trees can live until they’re 200 years old.
There’s a precise art to skilfully denuding the trees with surgical-axe accuracy, allowing the bark to be peeled away in sections while protecting the living tree beneath.
Once cut, the trunk is then daubed with a number representing the year…so the descortiçador (cork harvester) knows when next to come around.
It’s big business, but it’s also a vital part of the Alentejo ecosystem of rolling hills and fabulous flora and fauna – so important it has its own name: montado.
There’s a close relationship between the cork oak trees and the region’s famous black pigs that feast on their acorns.
Porco preto is one of the regional specialities which our local butcher prides himself on and it’s part of a mixed-use agricultural system which is so different from the monocultures of eucalyptus, pine or other cereal crops.
Delving more deeply into the wildlife of Alentejo I discovered a BBC Natural World film from 2008.
I’ve been waxing lyrical all spring about the wild flowers, the nightingales, the owls and eagles, but it seems there’s even more out there.
If you have 45 minutes I’d recommend you check it out here once you’ve finished the blog, but in summary the wildlife in our part of Portugal is really quite extraordinary.
There are a hundred species of breeding birds - including some of the rarest in Europe - different types of eagles, bee-eaters, nightjars, hoopoes and kites.
Storks love to build their large nests on chimneys, posts and pylons…and even on the cliffs above our favourite secret beach (which is apparently something unusual for the species!)
And one of the world’s rarest wild cats – the Iberian lynx – is now being reintroduced and protected in Portugal.
A lot of the birds and animals rely on the montado landscape centred around cork oaks, and from the documentary it seems the biggest threat to the ecosystem back in 2008 was plastic corks and metal screw tops for wine bottles undermining the cork prices.
I don’t suppose that’s gone away…even if the cork producers have done a great deal to reduce trichloroanisol (TCA) – the bacteria which can make wine taste “corked.”
But there are new threats to the landscape.
One of the issues concerning a lot of people in this part of Alentejo are the temporary plastic greenhouses that are used to grow berries and soft fruit.
Many worry about how much water the estufa (greenhouse) crops are using – at the expense of other smaller farms – and what will happen to all the plastic when it’s finished with.
A loophole allows big companies to put greenhouses up in the national park and there’s a concern that tourists coming for natural beauty might be put off by industrial agriculture.
But the other threat to the Alentejo montado comes from an unlikely source: solar panels.
Friends in Cercal do Alentejo, which is about a 40 minute drive from us, recently stumbled across plans to build a vast solar power plant near their guesthouse.
A public meeting came just two days before the deadline for consultation and few people knew what was being planned.
Portugal has committed to dramatically increasing its reliance on renewable power, and it’s hard to argue against the need for solar.
But it raises the question of what the inevitable vast rollout of renewables will look like.
In the case of Cercal it may look like half a million panels arranged in one plot the size of 816 football fields – far larger than the village – in the world’s most important cork growing region.
Trees and their shadows can’t co-exist with solar panels and so it would be a new monoculture of silicon sheets.
A German company is leasing the land from absentee landowners for far more rent than farmers can afford for growing wheat or cork oaks and there’s a lack of local organisation in poorer rural communities to oppose life-changing developments.
Other parts of Europe with strong local lobbying groups have prevented similar schemes from going up in their backyard.
It’s a subject I’m hoping to dig into in a bit more detail and write an article on, but it raises a big question about the visual and environmental impact of renewable energy.
I’ve filmed some impressively large solar power plants in the California desert, but nobody lives anywhere near them.
People in cities like LA have been clambering to install solar panels on their rooftops thanks to tax incentives and subsidies.
If reliable solar power for national grids needs to be done at scale, will these individual acts be enough or are large scale solar farms the only future?
And if so, where will they be? Will the people that make the least fuss end up being the ones overwhelmed by a new silicon monoculture?
What’s vital is good information, public accountability and the understanding of how ecosystems like the Alentejo’s cork oak montado - and all the wildlife that comes with it - might be at stake.
Only through strong and open democratic processes in local politics can the pros and cons be weighed up, the debates held and good decisions made.
And speaking of accountability…
I know what a naked oke is.
If your dog doesn’t like it I would love to have it. 😜