In the first of our exclusive excerts from Chris Stewart’s latest book on life in Andalucia, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society, he reveals how his organic sheep destroyed his organic vegetable garden
IT was four in the morning, on yet another hot, hot night and I was fast asleep. I was so deeply asleep, in fact, that when the sound of bells dimly percolated into the murk of my consciousness, I assumed it was a dream and rolled over. Later, as the edge of light sliding down the shutters became sharper, the sound came again and this time the dogs began to bark.
I leapt from the bed and rushed outside. There were sheep everywhere, frenetically devouring the plants that grow round the house. The dogs shot through the door barking; the sheep panicked, and rocketed as one down the steps. With Big and Bumble at my heel, I hurtled buck naked – no time to bother with clothes – in pursuit. The flock thundered through the vegetable patch, out by the pool and hurled themselves over the stone wall, down to that part of the farm that belongs to them.
I turned and looked at what had previously been the lovingly tended fruits of Ana’s labours. It was hardly a catastrophe on the scale of earthquakes and hurricanes, almost farcical in fact (‘SHEEP RAVAGE VEGETABLE PATCH’). But it put me in shock, this orgy of herbivorous gluttony that had just taken place. The sheep had been eating Ana’s organic fruit and vegetables, and the flowers that were planted around them, all night long. The only things that had survived were the courgettes, which, it would seem, are abhorrent to sheep. The rest was just a miserable mess of trampled and half-masticated plants, spattered here and there with glistening cagarrutas, sheep turds.
I stood there in the first light of day, still wearing nothing but my boots, slack-jawed and appalled by the damage, and wondering how the hell I was going to break the news to Ana. But Ana was already there, stooping amongst the remains of her raspberries. She had followed me down, and as she looked about her I could hear that she was sobbing. I put my arms around her. I couldn’t think of anything to say. What would you say?
Two hundred scrabbly little hooves… the evidence wasn’t hard to see
There was little she could say, either, though I worried at once as the words trickled out: ‘I can’t put this right… I can’t do it all over again… All that work and… and there’s nothing left…’ This was so unlike Ana – the stoic among us who always kept going, who always saw the funny side.
What was exercising me immediately, though, was to establish where the wretched sheep had got in, and to fix things so that it wouldn’t happen again. The whole lamentable episode had, I was bitterly aware, been my fault: I was the one who had delayed feeding the alfalfa to the sheep, and I was the one responsible for the fencing. I examined the boundary minutely, looking for tracks in the dust, or wool on the thorns, but the fencing was all intact. I couldn’t make it out. There was one possibility though. We had built a high stone wall to support the terraced garden that surrounds the pool. The entrance to this terrace was contrived according to a drawing I had seen of the fortified entrance to the crusader castle of Crac des Chevaliers in Syria, which was conceived to discourage attacking armies, who would find themselves hemmed in amongst stone walls with defenders pouring boiling oil and other substances inimical to their well-being upon their heads. I figured this ought to scotch any incursions planned by mere sheep into that part of the farm we had designated as our garden.
I crouched down and scanned this piece of formidable medieval military architecture for tell tale signs. Cagarrutas… there were cagarrutas all the way up the steps. They must have been nervous. They couldn’t have got through the wooden gate, but a patch of heavily scuffed earth at the top of the wall attested to the fact that they had walked up the steps and then leapt the remaining wall. Fifty sheep – that’s two hundred scrabbly little hooves… The evidence wasn’t hard to see.
Later that morning, Manolo turned up; I found him crouched down among the remains of the vegetable patch. He turned and looked at me as he heard me enter. There was a diplomatic edge to his usual grin of greeting. ‘The sheep been here, then?’ he said, perhaps a little unnecessarily.
‘The buggers jumped up the wall. They’ve been here all night. They’ve had the lot. A bad business…’
‘A bad business,’ repeated Manolo, tossing a bunch of ravaged radishes onto the compost heap. ‘But not as bad as all that – a lot of this ought to come back. Maybe not those cabbages, but you don’t like cabbages anyway; you told me so yourself.’
‘No… You’re right. None of us do. I don’t know why Ana plants them. We usually end up giving them to the sheep anyway.’
‘Well, there you go, then,’ said Manolo matter-of-factly, ‘and the tomatoes and garlic will be fine, the sheep didn’t manage to break through onto the triangle patch.’ I hadn’t thought to check but this was a huge relief to hear. ‘Give me a couple of hours and I’ll have this all sorted out, and in a month you won’t even remember the sheep were here,’ he promised.