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A woodland to call not my own

by C.W. Nicol

On May 31 this year, our woodland here in Kurohime was finally designated as a Nagano Prefectural Trust, whose aim is to foster the rehabilitation of abused and neglected woodland, and to return it to greater and balanced biodiversity through continuing research and education.

Though the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust — of which I am now president — comprises 18 hectares of mountainside, I began buying the land bit by bit 16 years ago. Some parts of it were little plantations of spindly conifers, but most was crowded mixed forest that had grown up after the slopes had been denuded of all trees, then abandoned. (It was still bloody expensive to buy though!)

Along with my forester from the beginning, Nobuyoshi Matsuki (though even his wife would never dream of calling him “Nobuyoshi”), his assistant and numerous ecology students and small groups, I have spent years trimming out and replanting with many of the 50-odd tree and bush species that were there before (we know from asking the old folks who are still around to remember). These included mountain cherry, Japanese oaks, maples, beech, walnut, chestnut and magnolia. A lot of seeds just spring to life from the ground as if they have been waiting there for us to clear out the suffocating cover of bamboo grass.

This has yielded a very satisfactory increase in numbers and varieties of flowers, birds and insects — of which we have logged 900 species to date. Various wild animals, including bears, dormice, civets, ermine, weasels, foxes, tanuki, hares, deer and even, recently, wild boar also either visit us regularly or make the woods their home.

Another problem we have had to tackle head-on is that many bird species need large, old hollow trees to nest in. Pretty little birds like coal tits (Parus ater), great tits (P. major), varied tits (P. various) and nuthatches (Sitta europaea) are well-known for this nesting preference. However, large birds, such as the Ural owl (Strix uralensis), also need hollow trees. The trouble is that all our trees are very young, and it’ll be another 50 years or longer before we get ones suitable for these birds to raise their young in.

Therefore, we decided to try using boxes and pots as nests.

My house is a five-minute drive from the woods of the trust, and as I wanted to observe the birds easily and closely, I first tried alternative housing for them in the little woodland directly around the house. At the time I had discovered charming little nest pots that could be hung from tree branches and the eaves of buildings. We originally imported them from Wales to use along with conventional wooden nest boxes.

I was delighted by the rate of occupancy of both the boxes and the nest pots, so the dozen university graduates and myself involved in this project began to try them in the woods, numbering them and keeping a watch on them.

Some species of birds will not return to the debris of a former nest, so we deemed it wise to clean out the nests at the end of each season, with excellent results the coming year. We also found sparrows taking over the wooden boxes near the house, but not in the wilder woods.

Some people have tried to give me flak about nest boxes not being “natural.” Well, is denuding an area of trees and then abandoning it “natural”? By giving these beautiful birds a place to nest, they stay around the woods and also do a terrific job of taking caterpillars and other leaf- and bark-munchers from the trees and giving them to their young.

We are gathering data to see which boxes or pots are favored by which kinds of birds, and how successful they are in raising their broods. I hope this information will go toward a useful sharing of knowledge with other bird- and tree-lovers.

My greatest headache over the woods is caused by human thieves. They steal orchids and other rare plants, strip out the edible and salable sansai wild mountain vegetables, and steal about 80 percent of the shiitake, nameko and hiratake mushrooms we grow on trimmed-out logs.

My second headache is mice.

We get a lot of snow, and the mice have the habit of nibbling away the roots and stems of saplings during the winter, so they end up looking like sharpened pencils. They especially like young oaks. We’ve lost hundreds of these to mice — even trees 8 years old and growing straight and strong.

Why, I don’t know, but there seem to be fewer snakes such as vipers (mamushi) around than there used to be. Perhaps one reason is the three-sided concrete sluices they are putting in all over Japan. I know I’ve seen a large aodaisho being helplessly washed down the sluice that runs past our woods to local paddies — a sluice I hope to soon return to its natural state. Snakes eat mice and are very welcome.

Owls, too, take a lot of mice, especially when they have young, so for eight years or so we had been trying out a nest box for owls. This year the “owl box”‘ was so dilapidated we decided to remove it and go back to the drawing board. However, when Matsuki looked inside, there were three owl eggs. We consulted an expert and guarded the box zealously, as we have been getting reports of an increase in owlet poaching . . . thanks to Harry Potter. (Our owls do not deliver mail!)

We are now very happy, however, to announce the safe rearing of three fine healthy, fluffy young Ural owls, and we will increase the owl-box housing available to them in the future.

I am not by any means saying that setting up nest boxes and pots is an infallible solution. We do monitor them, and though Old Nic will be long gone by then, we do look forward to when they are no longer needed in our woods. Meanwhile, I have not noticed any decline in those birds that build other kinds of nests, and they seem to be even more numerous and vocal. But as I said, we’ll keep an eye out.

The Welsh-style nest pots, now made by a friend locally, have proved popular among people with country homes or suburban gardens with few trees and bushes. However, with all the best intentions, I once did a very wrong thing by giving away a nest pot hanging from the eaves of my house to a friend who said he wanted one. Driving home to Tokyo, he heard a little squeaking in the car and found five young great tits in the pot, crying for their mother. With amazing patience he and his family actually managed to raise the little birds, and a pair still nest every year in his garden. I was chagrined, because I really didn’t think the little guys were in there.

So you see, even very shy birds will make their homes right under your noses. Rather like some people, don’t you think?