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Winter’s end and the coming spring

Excitement's in the air as we make plans for our woods — and work up an appetite for Earth Day Tokyo's weekend festival next month

by C.W. Nicol

I’ve just finished packing my bag for a visit to the Ogasawara Islands, a boat trip down, a boat trip back, and I seriously doubt if there will be any snow. It will be my first time to those rather remote islands 1,000 km due south of Tokyo (though administratively part of the capital), and I am looking forward to it tremendously.

During winter, we don’t do much work in our trust’s 30 hectares of woods up here in snow country outside Kurohime in the Nagano Prefecture hills. But there are lots of ends to tie up; lots of things to plan. One of these future projects is what to do with the adjoining 12-hectare area of land we added to the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust two years ago.

Since we acquired that extra territory (thanks to a very kind donation) we have been conducting surveys there, and on Feb. 18, most of the researchers gathered together at our new Afan Nature Centre to hold a seminar and discuss everyone’s findings and ideas.

Firstly we identified the area as to forest types, drier or wetter land, steepness of slopes, valleys, dominant species of trees in each zone and so on. In two years, we have identified 89 families of flora, comprising 345 species. This is about 150 fewer species than we have in the woods we have been tending for the last 26 years. We must do our best to find out what species have been lost through clear-cutting followed by neglect.

When we first began working with the original woods, we found lots of old beech mast husks and the rotted remains of horse chestnuts in the soil. Hence we have brought both beech and horse chestnut trees back. Maybe the same will be true in the new area. We do know that there are some endangered plants there that we must protect and not damage by any future actions.

Another vital field of research has been into aquatic insects. Up to now, our activities in our original woods have improved habitat for these creatures. As a result, the number of species of dragonflies, over a research period of four years, has gradually increased to the present 39. These species cover at least 14 varieties of aquatic habitat in our woods. So a key question is how should we balance aquatic habitat with trees in the new area, which has several small streams and boggy areas.

A new field of research for us has been spiders. So far, 150 species have been identified in the area on which we have long been working, with only about 100 species in the new area. This is probably because we have more light-loving spiders in the woods we have worked on (although there are still plenty of shady places and spiders that love them, too).

When it comes to birds, 73 species have been positively confirmed throughout the whole woodland in the last two years, but I think there are more. However, I am worried about a seeming overall decline in bird numbers in this area — a decline which my wise and venerable forester, Mr. Matsuki, thinks has to have something to do with the incidence of avian influenza on a wider front. Research will continue.

My old friend Prof. Seiki Takatsuki from the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Management at Azabu University in Kanagawa Prefecture has set motion- and heat-triggered cameras throughout the woods, and we know that nearly every wild mammal in Honshu except for the macaque monkey and the serow either inhabit or visit the woods.

We have pictures of bears, wild boars, foxes, badgers, racoon dogs, civet cats, martens, weasels, hares, mice and voles from these fixed cameras. We have separate pictures of creatures that prefer to be higher up in the trees — squirrels, flying squirrels and bats.

During our seminar, students from Azabu University gave excellent presentations of how our forest-management activities have affected flowers and the plant biomass in general, and also of which insects came to which flowers under what circumstances and at which times of the year.

After each presentation, Mr. Matsuki, who has never attended university, gave his opinions and insights from his lifetime in the woods.

Then, as the discussions were winding up, I brought out a huge pot of wild boar and venison stew, plates of goodies produced by local ladies — and lots of beer, sake, shochu and whisky to wash it all down.

With a big log fire crackling away in the hearth, woodland talk spread its wings and we all got very jolly together.

We do a lot of research, none of which is sponsored or dictated by the government. We keep records of what we do, and our fieldworkers are encouraged to publish their results — after trying them out on us. We only ever publish results with their permission.

Ideally, in the woods I want to strike a balance between field research and local knowledge and observations. M eanwhile, the last event we had at our Centre before my Ogasawaras trip concerned the upcoming Earth Day Tokyo on the weekend of April 23/24.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of my taking over the presidency of Earth Day Tokyo, and we want to try to do something special.

Japan’s current self-sustainability in food is very poor. Despite this, about 140,000 deer are killed by hunters or farmers every year, and nearly all those dead animals are buried or burned. The waste is awful and I have written about it in this column several times.

At the same time, high-class restaurants in Japan import more than 140 tons of farmed venison from New Zealand. I just can’t see the sense in it.

At home I use three to four deer a year, which local hunters bring to me whole. From one average-size animal I can make at least 100 meals — and wild venison, properly handled, is excellent food.

This year at the festival, we plan to have a “forest kitchen” serving venison hamburgers, venison keema curry and venison sausages (if we can make enough of them) — as well as forest herb tea and confectioneries made from our local vegetables and fruits up in the hills.

Consequently, four Earth Day Tokyo planners and cooks came to our Centre on Feb. 20 to try out my recipes and cooking and discuss this project.

Deer are killing off rare plants and doing tremendous damage to paddies, fields, pastures and forests. They need to be culled or the whole balance of nature will tip. However, if deer are to be sacrificed, then they should be appreciated and consumed with humble gratitude and respect.

That is where I stand, and I’d like to share the good and simple taste with those of you who can understand that.