The Olive Tree

"It was an excessively hot day and we were glad when at last the road plunged into the shady shimmering depths of the vast olive groves. These groves to me, when I was young, were magical places.

To grown-ups who walked there among the trunks with their gaping holes and the canopy of silvery-green leaves, they were merely scenically beautiful and they were grateful for the shade they provided, but to me they were a treasure trove of creatures.

The myriad holes in each tree provided sanctuary to a dozen different creatures from Scops owls ...

Scops Owl

... to squirrel dormice, from wrens to black rats. At the right time of the year, you could find crawling up their trunks strange hump-backed, bulbous-eyed creatures, newly emerged from the earth. Watch them, and their skin would split down the back and slowly, and with great effort, there would emerge a cicada, with nut-brown body and silver wings, the true harbingers of summer who would make the island vibrate with their song.

Listen

In the roots of the olives, you could find centipedes as long as a pencil or toads with silvery skins blotched with green so they looked like those medieval maps of the world where the continents were all misshapen. Insects were everywhere, butterflies, ant lions and ladybirds, fragile lace-wing flies who laid their eggs on slender stalks on the plant stems, and jet-black scarab beetles in pairs, rolling their balls of dung to bury as nurseries for their young.

Someone once said to me that they could not understand what I saw in the olive groves - they were so dull and lifeless. For me, they housed an endless, fascinating pageant of creatures and in spring they were awash with flowers, as if someone had emptied a paintbox among the great, dark, gnarled trunks. They were anything but dull and lifeless."

HOW TO SHOOT AN AMATEUR NATURALIST © Gerald Durrell and Lee Durrell 1982

Ancient "drunken" olive tree trunk at The Snow-White Villa

" ... rolling green-silver eiderdowns of giant olive trees, some reputedly over five hundred years old and each one unique in its hunched arthritic shape, its trunk pitted with a hundred holes like pumice stone."

BIRDS BEASTS & RELATIVES © Gerald Durrell 1969

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The Ancient Olive Tree

No visitor to Corfu could miss its green olive groves. There are estimated to be well over three million olive trees being cultivated, covering roughly a third of the Island.

Venetians rulers introduced large scale olive tree planting to Corfu starting in 1565 to replace vineyards. Some old olive trees may be centuries old. They are maintained by pruning (often, these days, with a chain-saw). Modern dwarf varieties, however, may be grubbed out and replaced every 25 years or so.

Many varieties of olive trees can be used for both oil and as table olives however, on Corfu, oil production is their primary purpose and the olives can be bitter if eaten.

Between 10-25% oil can be obtained from each olive depending on variety and climatic factors. Greek olive oil is famous for its quality and character.

Olive harvesting in Corfu takes place from from September through to February. This is during the mild Corfu winter.

Harvesting is either manual, by hand, with sticks or using various devices designed to shake the olives off into nets which are usually extended under the tree to catch the olives. Alternatively it may be mechanised especially, on large scale intensively farmed plantations. Mechanisation drastically  increases yields and reduces hard labour on plantations and manual harvesting of smaller traditional olive holdings would probably be uneconomic these days if it was not for the voluntary assistance, at harvest time, of the farmers' family and friends. Corfu farms tend to be relatively small and less intensified and mechanised than mainland plantations.

Olive plantations can house and provide for  a huge variety of species of flora, insects, reptiles, birds and other wildlife.

Problems, though, have arisen from the application of some intensive farming techniques which have led to environmental concerns - land neglect, soil erosion, clearance of habitats, use of herbicides to remove vegetation under olive trees and use of insecticides to control pests (like fruit fly).

According to Jean-Pierre Wuetschert, a long-time Corfu resident and reptile expert, in the last few decades about 80% of Corfu reptile population has vanished because poisonous insecticides has been used. Poisons kill insects which means that there is less food for wildlife further up the food chain - if there are no insects there are fewer reptiles like snakes and so on.

According to Hilary Whitton-Paipeti, Corfu resident, and Editor of The Corfiot magazine, the problem is the spraying of an organophosphate with the trade name of Lebacid (Fenthion) which has entered the food chain and gone up it so that it could now be affecting public health.

At last public opinion may force a more eco-friendly method to be adopted. Even if it is, belatedly, it will take a long time for the environmental damage to repair itself, if ever.

The wealth of precious wildlife that Gerald Durrell discovered for himself and wrote about in 1930's Corfu olive groves may be gone forever.

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Thanks for the acknowledgement on your very good olive tree site. If you like I can keep you updated on any developments regarding the olive groves Good news is that we have just had general elections and one of the new deputies elected here in Corfu is dedicated to developing ecological means of controlling the Dacus fly.

Please change the word Labacid to Lebacid which is the correct spelling.

Hilary Whitton Paipeti - The Corfiot Magazine 20 March 2004

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Acknowledgements

In order to write this short note, intended only as the simplest and briefest of introductions to a very complex subject, a number of sources were consulted and the writer would like especially to acknowledge the very expert, enlightened, clear and detailed "EU Report on The Environmental Impact of Olive Oil" published by The European Forum on Nature Conservation and Pastoralism and a fine BBC Radio production "Beyond The Taverna" (and its participants). Comments, information, data, photographs, corrections and criticisms are very welcome of course.

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