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Killer Caterpillars . . . Life in a Mountain Village in Spain
Joe and I are seriously considering building an ark. The rain, which started well before Christmas, is still coming down in stair-rods. The Spanish news speaks of little else, and shows us images of flooded towns, collapsed bridges and roads blocked by mudslides and rock falls. Apparently, this has been the wettest winter on record, and more rain has fallen in two months than Andalucia sees normally in four years.
To get into our village, residents have to zig-zag and slalom past mounds of rocks and mud. The council is doing its best, but as fast as they clear the road, more falls occur. Geronimo, who is a sort of village policeman, battles valiantly with the daily damage, but his efforts are in vain. As fast as he shovels mud aside, more slides down. Water oozes out of every crevice on the hillside, eating away at the mountain. You can’t fight nature, so we’ve given up fretting about our leaky roof; we just keep pots and buckets on standby, ready to catch the drips.
Before Joe starts building his ark, he’s decided we need to get fitter. So we have a new regime. Every day, weather permitting (which it hasn’t often, so far) we walk the almost perpendicular path to the top of the mountain. Our first attempt took us 16 minutes, with frequent rests. We can now do it in 12 minutes, but still need frequent rests. But the pain is worth it for the view from the top, and we see something new every time we take the walk.
Halfway up the hill, we pass Geronimo’s donkey. He watches us with interest but we don’t stop to speak, our mission is to reach the top faster than the last time, or die in the attempt.
A couple of weeks ago, we arrived at the top of the hill as usual, panting, heaving and gasping. It’s a kind of look-out post with benches and a few shade trees so we sat down to recover.
‘What’s that?’ I asked when I’d recovered enough to form real words. I pointed a few feet away and Joe walked over, crouching down to examine the curious spectacle I’d spotted.
‘Good God!’ said Joe. ‘What on earth…’
Writhing along the ground was a long, brown sinuous worm-like thing. Except it wasn’t a worm, or even a snake. It was a four foot long line of caterpillars, marching nose to tail.
We were enchanted. Each caterpillar was brown with yellow stripes and soft fluffy hairs. Each caterpillar followed the one in front, never deviating from the line, never getting left behind. We stayed awhile, fascinated, watching the determined little procession.
‘I wonder what they are,’ said Joe. ‘And I wonder where they’re heading?’
The answer to these questions was to come as a bit of a shock…
We took some photos, headed back down the hill, had a chat with Geronimo’s donkey, and went inside. I switched on the lap-top and described our caterpillar encounter on Twitter. And what a response I got!
‘@VictoriaTwead They’re KILLERS! Don’t go near them!’
‘@VictoriaTwead Hate them, hate them, hate them!’
‘@VictoriaTwead What is the point of those evil things?’
‘@VictoriaTwead Those caterpillars are DEADLY, avoid at all costs!’
As you can imagine, I was a little taken aback… Killers? Deadly? How could those cute little downy caterpillars be anything but charming?
Well, it seems that these are Pine Processionary caterpillars, destined to hatch into unremarkable moths. The female moth lays her tiny eggs in a pine tree. The eggs hatch and the caterpillars grow quickly, feeding furiously on pine needles at night. They spin a white fluffy bundle in the tree to house their community until February or March when the colony abandons the tree in a long line, searching for soft soil to bury themselves and pupate.
So why the horror? Well, if disturbed, the caterpillar sheds its hairs. The hairs cause painful rashes, or much worse. If inhaled, the tiny hairs can be lethal. An inquisitive dog unfortunate enough to inhale these hairs needs to be rushed to the vet within 40 minutes. Children and adults can also suffer severe reactions, including anaphylactic shock. Even walking under trees with the bundles can be dangerous as the hairs are often airborne. In addition, the pine trees themselves are devastated by these furry fiends, and often die.
Whew! Yet another Spanish learning curve for us old fools.
Of course, this poses another problem. When Joe builds his ark, which two animals are we going to take on board? Which two chickens, which two caterpillars? Are we even allowed to take two Pine Processionary caterpillars?
Answers on a postcard, please, addressed to ‘The Two Old Fools up a Spanish mountain who still have an awful lot to learn.’
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The author: Victoria Twead
Victoria has written 5 posts to this blog. Victoria Twead nagged her long-suffering partner, Joe, into moving from England to Spain in 2004. They settled into a tiny mountain village in Andalucía, became reluctant chicken farmers and ended up owning probably the most dangerous cockerel in Spain. Victoria’s hilarious record of their culture shock and life with the villagers is told in her new book, Chickens, Mules and Two Old Fools, awarded the HarperCollins Gold Star. TopHen@victoriatwead.com
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