Wildlife / by Adrian Joyner

I thought I would write something about the wildlife in southern Greece, though perhaps I should say at the outset that I am no expert, and I have a tendency to take an anthropomorphic view and to interpret what wild creatures do as if they were really human beings in disguise.

Take dung beetles. We see them on the track disposing of the droppings left behind by Niko’s sheep, chunky labourers manhandling their perfectly crafted spheres of dung across the stony slope.

When the ball of dung begins to run away, as it frequently does, the beetle simply hangs on to it until it comes to a halt. He (she?) then climbs to the top of the dung ball, looks about, climbs down again and continues moving in the appropriate direction.

Sometimes they work in pairs, like removal men. Dave and Dave. Dung removal. Reasonable rates. All orders quoted for. Occasionally you see a little fellow scurrying around the operation like some keen apprentice.

In fact, or at least according to the only short paragraph on dung beetles I could find, the pairs of insects are usually male and female (Dave and Dawn?) and the apprentice is really an offspring. It seems that they bury the spheres of dung and either lay eggs in them or eat them at a later date. Apparently, they bury much more dung than they will ever use.

One evening, Linda and I heard a very peculiar sound from the terrace above us: a sort of clunk-moan, clunk-moan sound. We climbed up to discover two tortoises mating, though whether it was him or her that was moaning we never discovered, since our arrival had obviously put them off their stride.

We crouched a few yards off, waiting voyeuristically to see if they would go to it again, but no luck.

We have seen snakes on several occasions, olive green jobs, about eighteen inches long, harmless, they say, though a dog, Toto, belonging to Richard, the Englishman who sold us the land, died after being bitten by a horn nosed viper. Everybody took to wearing sturdy shoes for a while afterwards. It seems that the bite is seldom fatal to adult humans, though.

Ants, of course, are everywhere. We step over ant highways all the time and clearly there are many species, from tiny, barely visible creatures that flow along their miniscule trade routes at great speed, like water, to more substantial insects you wouldn’t necessarily want to get bitten by. I am an admirer of ants, their relentless industry and their capacity for cooperation.

What does it say? Look to the ant, thou sluggard. Today, I see a cornflake beneath the breakfast table apparently moving of its own accord. The cornflake is much, much larger than the two hero ants manoeuvring it purposefully through the fallen olive leaves.

There are other moments: a green lizard racing obliviously beneath my chair in pursuit of a dragonfly, which it then eats in sudden gulps, the wings hanging out at either side of its mouth: a praying mantis sitting on my hat eating a fly as if it were a hamburger and then cleaning its hands(?) afterwards. They have an odd presence, delicate and punctilious, like priests. Their heads move in a subtle puppet-like way as they watch you with arch attention.

See what I mean about anthropomorphic?

Now that Niko no longer grazes his sheep on our terraces, we hardly ever see dung beetles. These days he only keeps a handful of ewes and he would not be well enough to bring them down the valley side to graze. He had, in any case, graciously given up bringing his animals down after we started to grow flowers and vegetables.
We still watch the ants. A couple of years ago, on the track, I came across what I took to be the aftermath of some kind of ant war or raid. For several metres around the entrance to a nest, the ground was littered with ant corpses, most of them snipped in two. There were hundreds, maybe thousands. It was a salutary thing.