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Our woodland trust just keeps on growing

As the quality of the forest improves, more varieties of plant and species of animal arrive — deer, boar . . . and poachers

by C.W. Nicol

Last month, thanks to a very generous donation, we were able to add another whopping 119,088 sq. meters to our Afan Woodland Trust down the road from my home in the Nagano Prefecture hills outside Kurohime. This brings our total to 296,070 sq. meters — about twice the area we had when we set up the trust six years ago.

This new addition is all woodland, clear cut just after World War II, then pretty well left alone for more than 30 years. It is very similar to the type of scrubby woodland I personally started buying over 20 years ago. That’s when I and Mr. Matsuki, the local forester I employed, began trimming, planting and planning to restore the woods to healthy biodiversity.

Since then, the land we tended has seen 22 endangered creatures return, including mammals, birds and plants. Also, whereas at the outset we found just seven kinds of wild mountain vegetables (sansai), last year we recorded 137 kinds of edible wild plants. And, although we did replant some species of trees that had vanished or died out, most of the others now growing in our woodland have come from seeds that were lying dormant in the ground, or were brought in by the wind, birds, animals and even insects to sprout and grow as the conditions improved for them.

Do insects transport seeds? I have a botanist friend whose specialty is violets. He insisted he wasn’t pulling my leg when he described how ants carry off the sweetly coated violet seeds, lick away the sugary outer covering and then leave the rest.

Throughout our woods we can already compare zoned areas, some of which have been tended in various ways for more than 20 years, and others that were untended but recorded. Now we have the new area, too, and I find it all very exciting because we already know how much the diversity and beauty of the woods improves. Then, as we see the climate changing, we will have more chances to try new experiments and tackle problems such as the expanding range of damaging insects and the invasion of animals including wild boar, which had long vanished from this deep-snow country.

For the first 25 years that I lived up here, we did not get wild boar, deer nor monkeys. Generally speaking, the wild boar and deer would have migrated elsewhere once there was over 40 cm of snow on the ground. But as more people moved in, accompanied by more roads and houses, it would be difficult for larger animals to migrate, and those left in deep-snow areas were easily hunted and wiped out.

We still get heavy snowfalls, up to80 cm or more, but in the past few years this has been interspersed with rain, meaning there is much less snow on the ground throughout the winter. Right now as I write, for example, there is only about 30 cm of snow, while in previous years there would typically be 1.5 meters.

Last year, wild boar were rooting up the wood-chip paths in our forest to get at the earthworms and beetle larvae that flourish underneath. Early this winter, Mr. Matsuki bagged two wild boar in the national forest adjoining our land, and a couple of years ago we saw the first deer tracks. Last autumn, a lone monkey was scouting around.

As we increase the area of woods and improve their quality, we will get more and more acorns, chestnuts, edible wild roots and tasty worms and larvae, so I predict we’ll have a lot more animal activity as well.

Not all of this activity is totally welcome. If deer come in they will make a meal of our young tree saplings in no time. But for them and the wild boar I do have a solution: A certain number will end up on the menu of the main hall in the Afan Woodland Trust Center we will start building this summer.

The center is for our trust members, and apart from the office, stores and so on, it will have a hall sufficient to seat about 50 people for a seminar, or 30 for at a sit-down dinner. The kitchen will be spacious, with a charcoal grill where yours truly looks forward to lending a culinary hand. We make our own high-quality charcoal and generate lots of firewood, too, which will fuel the hall’s big stone fireplace. The hall’s only permanent exhibit will be a large plasma TV screen linked to cameras in nest boxes or activated by movement sensors, so we can watch wary creatures and maybe nab the occasional would-be plant poacher. (I’d love to serve potted poacher, but my staff say the law won’t allow it.)

Poachers, mostly local, are a damned nuisance. They come in and strip the place of edible plants, or valuable ones such as orchids. They not only take wild mushrooms, but even the shiitake, oyster and winter mushrooms that we grow on logs that we ourselves have seeded with spores. For a while, during the early days of the “Harry Potter” craze, we even had to keep a close eye on our fledgling owls, because they were fetching a huge price in Japanese pet shops. I’m not kidding: People wanted to keep them in their city apartments, feeding them on imported frozen Chinese mice. Although I wouldn’t want to cast aspersions on J.K. Rowling’s prolific and fantastic works, I doubt if they could train owls to deliver letters.

Fortunately, though, the number of thieves of plants and other things has decreased since we started our guided tours and woodland courses, so as long as we do it right, having genuine visitors to our woods appears to help our conservation efforts. Indeed, when the center is up and running, we plan to serve our members various types of wild vegetables from our woods, and to have courses on how to pick and prepare them.

Meanwhile, to avoid visitor mortalities, we watch out for where the bears are when they come to the woods to feed (and drop huge turds), or where the giant hornets are active. So, to avoid disturbing sensitive nesting birds as well, we ask visitors to strictly keep to the paths, and up until now our members have been very good about this.

The Kurohime area is famous for skiing, but it is also a lovely place for walks and hikes when it gets hot and muggy in the big cities, and there are attractive pensions that serve good food. (My favorite is Tatsunoko, where the food is terrific, and where, during those heady bubble-era days, 90 percent of the clients were foreigners — all coming through regular guests telling others. There are fewer foreigners nowadays, but the food is still great.) Lake Nojiri is a short ride away and the local station is Kurohime.

All in all, it’s a great place to visit — and especially to experience the wonder of our woods.

If any readers would like to become trust members (for a paltry fee), we are now printing up information in English. Our e-mail address is info@afan.or.jp. As my staff are not entirely fluent in English, I will do my best to answer any genuine questions they can’t handle.