Rural Notes 15

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In the early years of my career, I was often asked what had influenced my decision to become a vet. Most of my class at University were either farmer’s sons or pony club enthusiasts who seemed to have been born in Wellington boots! For my part, I developed a passion for wildlife and conservation as a child after reading the writings of Gerald Durrell and this stayed with me throughout my schooling, and made veterinary medicine seem an obvious choice of career.

With the passage of time and the acquisition of knowledge, new interests develop and new opportunities present, and I never (yet) became the eco-warrior saviour of the Amazon basin I once aspired to, but Gerald Durrell did and he wrote very extensively and entertainingly on the subject, and I lapped up every word as a boy. He formed the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust which I joined when I was about 10 and sadly I still have my original membership card. Now renamed the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the charity states that it “strives to save the most threatened species in the most threatened places around the world.

Biodiversity is essential for human survival and our aim is to ensure we can persist alongside the myriad of plants and animals that inhabit our planet”. The organisation is still based in Jersey where Durrell created and opened a private zoo in the late fifties, but the inspiration for Durrell himself was in large part the exposure his early childhood gave him to the rich and diverse ecology of Corfu, where he was raised in the 1930s. His most widely read book (later made into a film),’ My relatives and other animals’, is an autobiographical account of a childhood spent exploring the olive groves and riverbeds around his home, finding, identifying and collecting everything from butterflies and frogs to scorpions.

This summer, my family and I were lucky enough to holiday on beautiful Corfu and I had the great privilege of getting as close to one of my childhood heroes as was possible. (Durrell died in 1995). The choice of villa was not very difficult. Villa Alexina is quietly located well off the beaten tourist track, characterful and simply beautiful. It’s a 16th century Venetian built manor house with the prettiest vine covered terrace imaginable. The terrace is bordered by dense shrubbery which affords the perfect home for Martin and Martina, the resident tortoises which guests are requested to feed. Wild tortoises used to abound on the island, but peasant farmers view them as vermin and their lot in the wild is not a happy one.

I really had no idea of just how engaging these remarkable creatures are. Alerted by the sound of voices, they would scuttle out from under a bush every morning and proceed to follow the pink ‘crocs’ worn by my youngest with nothing short of a passion. Their appetites knew no bounds, with fruit, veg, meat and fish all happily sampled and nibbled. Alarmingly, they also possess a turn of speed which I’ve never been privy to in my consulting room, and I can understand how Aesop’s hare may have been caught out!

The jewels in the crown of our villa however, were the owners, Dave and Alex Ashcroft. Dave is a retired farmer from Cornwall who saw the potential of the place when he first glimpsed it, roofless and overgrown, over two decades ago. Having bought it, they have worked tirelessly to restore the property to its original condition and have done so with full sympathy for the original materials and colours first used in the 1500’s. As a labour of love it must have been exhausting but hugely rewarding. Their shared passion for ecology and nature meant an association with the Durrells, who remain strongly connected with the island, was inevitable, and they remain close friends of Lee, Gerald’s widow.

Now, partly in tribute to Durrell, and partly because they have such fun and find it so beneficial to so many, Dave and Alex host the Gerry Durrell School of Corfu every year at the villa, and invite students to a week of lectures and field trips around the area, exploring and learning about the plants and animals indigenous to this fascinating, vibrant and diverse island. The ‘lectures’ are delivered by world renowned speakers and the field trips are taken very locally and include snake hunts, night walks to find fireflies and nocturnal frogs, underwater explorations and beautiful coastal walks on the turquoise edge of the Ionian Sea. The guest book reads like a roll call of my childhood heroes, with various Durrells, and Davids (Attenborough and Bellamy to name but two). It’s a real treat reading the comments from these giants of the conservation world, and judging by some of the handwriting veering off page, it’s also pretty clear that there have been very long and very sociable evenings enjoyed too!

Tortoises aside, I had my own holiday wildlife adventure which unfolded in the very early hours of our first week. We had enjoyed an evening with our hosts who popped round and cooked us a delicious typical Corfian supper on an olive wood fuelled barbeque. Dave & Alex were of course, a treasure trove of information on all the island’s diverse flora and fauna both on and off shore and all the family were enchanted listening to them talking through the huge biodiversity on our doorstep. With no prompting, Dave produced a carafe of very more-ish Chateau Alexina 2012, made with his own hands from the grapes under which we were currently relaxing. A second carafe followed the first and by midnight, all was definitely right with the world.

Our peace was then broken by a rather hysterical voice calling Dave and pleading for assistance. Some ex-pat friends on the island had done a house swap with their daughter, and she had come out to the island with her new baby and had been joined by another couple who also had a new baby. It seems that as we were enjoying our barbecue, the 4 adults holidaying on the other side of the valley were enjoying a supper in a restaurant down on the coast, having left a local au-pair in charge of the babies. It is lucky indeed that this girl was local, for as she went to check on the sleeping babies, she was able to identify the snake in the hallway leading to the bairns bedroom as a Horn Nosed Viper, the only venomous one amongst the island’s 13 resident snake species. I salute the calm courage of this girl, who, seeing the snake start to slither through the bedroom door, deftly reached for the handle and pulled the door tightly shut, trapping the snake but sparing the babies. She immediately phoned the owner’s daughter, who was understandably distressed, and who in turn phoned Dave, a family friend and famed for his many zoological skills, including snake wrestling. Dave invited me to join him, and suitably emboldened by his Dutch courage, I accompanied him on an interestingly speedy drive across the valley to the poor young couples’ villa. A very pale looking mum directed us to the relevant corridor, and sure enough, trapped in a door but still writhing, was a snake with magnificent diamond markings, just as per the horned viper.

These snakes grow to about 3 feet in length, and as there was well over 2 feet of snake lying on the corridor side of the door, Dave was confident that the door must have trapped it just behind the head. Grabbing the snake as close to the door, he opened the door a fraction and pulled the creature backwards. He didn’t even turn the hall light on for fear of waking the babies! As predicted, the door had caught just behind the head and the poor thing looked to have suffered a life shortening compression injury. With Dave at the head end, I played a cameo role and carried the tale and body and we took the still writhing snake to the car where we placed it in a secure box Dave keeps in his boot for just such emergencies! Sadly the snake died on the journey home, or it would have been released into the wild further up the mountain well away from all houses. When Dave spoke to Matt, the herpetologist who teaches in the school, we were informed that the snake probably followed a lizard, its favourite food, into the villa rather than sensing anything sinister re babies, but that nonetheless, the venom is dangerously toxic, especially, presumably, to babies. It has protein eating and nerve killing properties, with tissue at the bite site rapidly swelling and suffering very severe bruising then tissue death, as per gangrene. Indeed, it is classified as Europe’s most poisonous snake. No wonder the mums looked pale.

It seemed to stretch credulity to breaking point when Dave received a further call from the besieged villa owners daughter the following day, to the effect that another snake had been found, this time in their porch. Dave set off immediately and returned shortly, this time with a very lively Cats Snake contained within a bathroom flip top bin, gamely held, lid firmly pressed down by Alex who had accompanied him this time. This fellow was smaller but much more exciting as it is extremely rare, with only a couple of recorded sightings in the North of the island to date. Dave and Alex were delighted, frantically emailing snake specialists across Europe. I greatly hope, as I write this, not to put anyone off visiting this gem of a place. The appearance of one snake in residential accommodation is virtually unknown, with two being unheard of. As Dave assured the parents, ‘the snakes are much more afraid of you than you are of them’. History does not record their reaction to this advice.

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group