Mani Olive Groves

Burning the olive prunings – Agios Nikolaos

Below the village of Platsos, a sheepdog escorts her flock up the track and moves the herd off to let an olive pruner’s car pass. Passers by are few and are barked at as sheep watch on carefully. The endless olive trees cover the flat ground as well as the shallow slopes where ancient terraces have been created. Everywhere else in the lowlands is dense and impenetrable evergreen macchie or garrigue; a place of refuge for the large population of wild boar that emerge at night to root around in the groves.

The pruning is in full swing and bonfires are everywhere, chain saws are used to take off the large branches but the pruners, working on triangular wooden trestles with handsaws take off all the growth on the trunk and select only young branches on old limbs to produce this years’s crop; every so often they hold long distance conversations with one another to break the solitary monotony. After the trees are pruned the vegetation beneath is quickly swiped back before moving onto the next tree. Tethered cattle and small flocks of sheep are out to graze and wooden box, bee hives are put out in quiet corners often in long lines. The production of olives is entirely organic, the colourful flora and insects are testament to methods that have not changed in centuries, and the famous Mani honey has the taste of thyme and other herbs.

The olive and fruit trees are alive with blackcaps. Millions must winter throughout the Mediterranean given the number in a hectare here. They scold constantly and move through the branches, sometimes landing on the ground to pick up an insect; but they spend most time prising insects from buds. Large numbers of song thrushes winter here too and they are extremely jumpy and take off from the ground with a clatter and squawk. In the late afternoon, resident blackbirds sing from the tree tops and all seems well with the world.

Black redstarts are around the houses and a little owl is somewhere in an old house. Here too are resident great tits, blue and long-tailed tits. The brief but very loud, staccato song of wintering Cetti’s warblers erupt from dense cover. Jays shout from deep in the groves. Buzzards circle and display and settle on the very top of cypress trees. Sparrowhawks hunt the myriad, small birds with rapid stoops into the trees. Chickens are killed and plucked outside the front of the house and the local pair of long-tailed tits are quick to take advantage; one flys off with an enormous blood-tipped feather, stops to beat it into submission with surprising vigour, and then is away into the olive trees to somehow weave it into an intricate nest that is likely built deep in a thorn bush.

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