As I step outside the front door at 4.30pm, on my way to the washing line, I catch my breath. The sky above the tops of the pine trees is such an intense blue that I’m squinting, even with my back to the sun which is already casting long shadows across the lawn. Although it’s autumn in Portugal, in mid-November the air is thick with a warmth more redolent of September. I peel off my fleece, open the front door, and throw it back inside. At the washing line I can hear the rapid clacking of stork bills and I squint into the horizon, narrowing my eyes until the electricity pylon in the fields beyond the farm comes into view and with it, the silhouette of two birds in their lofty nest, necks arched, beaks held high towards the heavens. By the side of the dirt patch over which the washing line is strung, a couple of sheep are foraging amongst the hydrangeas, two fluffy lambs on unsteady legs and uncoordinated feet, dancing in the small clouds of dust their mothers are raising.
Jack and I can’t remember a year when we had lambs in November, eight so far and at least one more ewe heavily pregnant. Last spring we had a surfeit of male lambs who, when they got to around six months of age, had to be given to a neighbouring farmer as they had begun to noisily head-butt each other in the sheep shed every evening. I guess the threat of competition must have spurred the big old ram into action as a result of which, we now have this baby bonanza. Thankfully, most of the newborn this year are females so they’ll be able to stay, augmenting the small flock.
Like a living barometer, you don’t need a calendar here on the farm to tell you when the seasons are changing, the animals do that for you. Almost overnight it seems, the cats have doubled their body size, their skinny summer frames now clad in luxurious fur. The adult sheep, sheared to within half a centimetre of their skin at the end of spring, are now wearing thick, shaggy coats while the spring lambs, now six months old, are sporting tightly-coiled woollen onesies.
Up until last weekend, the stork nests at the abandoned herdade which we walk to on our customary circuit through the cork forest, had lain empty since early October when, during a short cold snap, their residents had flown south in pursuit of the sun. With this month’s heat, they’re back. Three days ago, we watched a plough churning the open fields beyond the forest, in its wake twenty or more egrets feasted from the newly-turned earth while beyond them, we counted sixteen storks, patiently standing, socially-distanced from one another in the neighbouring field, waiting for the egrets to move on with the plough so they could high-step amongst the fresh furrows.
Autumn on the farm means oranges and the lower orchard is heavy with fruit. Having picked the low branches bare, Dona Catarina can’t reach the upper foliage where the majority of fruit nestles, hidden inside its leafy camouflage so it only becomes visible once you’re standing directly beneath the tree, craning your neck. On Friday I headed down to the orchard to collect enough oranges to squeeze for breakfasts over the weekend and few extras for Dona Catarina.
Picking the oranges is a hit and miss business thanks to the sheep who, the minute they spot anyone coming into the orchard, crowd around your feet, jostling for prime position and threatening to knock you off your delicate, tiptoed balance. Orange-lovers, the prospect of fresh fruit sends them into a frenzy, not helped by the fact that Dona Catarina operates a ‘one for me, one for you’ system with them when she’s picking. I operate no such system, sticking rigidly to the ‘they’re all for me’ method. Consequently, I have to carry an open rucksack into which I can drop the fruit. Although I’m almost twice as tall as Dona Catarina – she is exceedingly petite – the upper branches are beyond tiptoed reach even for me so I have to jump, grab a branch and pull it down towards me, specks of dust and fragments of bark threatening to blind me. Then, with my only free hand and usually one eye shut because there’s dust in it, I have to pick the fruit and drop it into the rucksack while maintaining my balance against the tide of woolly bodies. Inevitably, there are casualties and an orange tumbles to the ground where it’s instantly snaffled amidst a noisy kerfuffle.
When I get back from the washing line, I grab the wood basket, and head back out to replenish it from the pile that Jack chain-sawed at the weekend. We’ll be lighting the wood burner soon. Once the sun drops towards the horizon, the temperature rapidly follows suit and inside the house, it’s already shiver-inducing cold.
Outside, the last cries of ewes and lambs fade as Dona Catarina feeds the flock and closes the gate for the night. Silence falls across the farm. Within the hour we light the fire, the aromatic smell of wood smoke mingling with the heady scent of freshly-picked oranges crowding the fruit basket. This week is set to turn colder and we have rain forecast from Wednesday. I might have to get the hot water bottles out, our final defence against the bedtime chill. Winter is not far away.