Environment | OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

Thinking out of the box

Twenty something years ago, when we started to buy badly abused and neglected woodland here in the Nagano Prefecture hills, one of the problems that became very obvious was the lack of housing. Not for me, but for the woodland creatures.

All the old trees had been cut down, and not one was left. Without old trees, in the hollows of which many creatures large and small find shelter, the woods can be deprived of diversity.

Bears need hollows, either under or in old trees; owls, various species of tits, bats, flying squirrels and wild honey bees also typically seek out tree hollows for homes.

Bears obviously need very large hollows, which we could do nothing about in our woods. Higher up the mountain in the national-park area, there are a few remnants of virgin forest with huge trees, so the bears that have survived can find dens up there. In our small woods however, I decided to set up nest boxes (not for bears, obviously!).

I have heard so-called purists decry the use of nest boxes as being “unnatural,” and I won’t argue the point anymore. We want owls in our woods for many reasons, among them being that especially when they are raising young, they take a lot of mice, and mice have an infuriating tendency to nibble the bark of young sapling roots in the winter, thus killing them. The various tits, besides being attractive little birds, take incredible amounts of harmful caterpillars and insects off trees, especially when they have growing chicks to feed. Bats also take night-flying insects, many of which lay eggs that turn into tree-damaging caterpillars. In delicious addition, wild bees pollinate flowers, and if we can get to their combs before the bears, and without hacking trees open, they deliver the best honey of all.

This year, as usual, we had a pair of owls nest in our oldest nest box. They have been raising young successfully in that ramshackle box for several years now. But this year, something raided the owls’ nest box when it had eggs in and the parent birds deserted the nest. We had set up a new nest box for them and were quietly watching it to see if the owls would take up residence. Unfortunately, they did not.

For the first time this year, though, a hole that had originally been drilled in one of our larger birches rotted out enough for the owls to take over. Although it was a bit cramped in there, the owls liked it and raised two young. Meanwhile, the other nest box was, for the first time, taken over by a flying squirrel, which delighted me.

Then, when the young owls had left the nest and started hunting for themselves, a new occupant took over that hole in the birch tree. It was a palm civet. We got a photograph of three young in the hole. I was pleased, but our forester Mr. Matsuki here in Kurohime, at what is now our Afan Woodland Trust, was most decidedly not.

“Damn foreign invaders! We should wring their necks!” he bristled. I knew he wasn’t referring to me, but I had to stick up for my fellow immigrants.

“From what I’ve read, palm civets were brought into Japan back at the beginning of the last century, so it wasn’t their fault. And anyway, by now I reckon they must have got Japanese citizenship.”

It didn’t help that the palm civets dropped turds in the little pool of spring water that we use for drinking. That led to a minor Matsuki tirade on the disgusting personal habits of some foreigners — to which I replied with a grin and a silly remark about even palm civets wanting to have washlets these days, too. It took a lot of flushing and washing to get the spring totally clean and the water potable again, so it was indeed a silly remark, and I take it back. Gentlefolk, after all, do not pee, let alone poo, in the bath — and drinking places should never be confused with toilets.

Palm civets (hakubishin) look a little bit like a cat or a big mongoose, and the young are born with fur. Adults are 40 cm to 70 cm long, nose to rump, and have a long, bushy tail. Their body weight varies from 1 kg to 5 kg, and they range in color from orange-brown to gray, usually with blackish feet. They have black stripes on their faces, and eyes surrounded by white spots. The cheeks and the sides of the nose are also black.

There are six species of civets, native to Africa, Madagascar, the Iberian Peninsula, southern China and Southeast Asia. They are omnivorous, and are notorious in Japan for raiding orchards and gardens. However, they also secrete a musk, which was formerly used in perfume. Whether they were brought into Japan for this or for their fur, I don’t know — but I do know that one of my Chinese friends, a chef, says they are absolutely heavenly once cooked in a hotpot.

The masked palm civet was blamed as the origin of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) disease that broke out in China in 2002, caused by a corona virus, but the jury is still out on that one. It is worth noting, though, that in China captured civets were generally kept in crowded and unsanitary conditions ready for use in traditional restaurants. This practice has supposedly been banned there now.

Whatever the fact or fiction, I am not at all worried about the ones in our woods; I am sure they are healthy, and we won’t try kissing one anyway (Mr. Matsuki especially).

In recent years, civets have frequently been sighted in Tokyo, and can be confused at a fleeting glance with the native tanuki, or raccoon dog. In the wild they prefer woodlands with tree hollows in which to raise their young. They are nocturnal, and usually sleep in trees during the daytime. From the remnants of the turds we found, we discovered the birch-hollow crew had been feeding on our abundant mulberry-tree berries.

While reading up about them, I found that in India, palm civets are called “toddy cats” because they are supposedly fond of the fermented palm sap used to make a local alcoholic beverage. That alone endeared them to me, and as a fellow immigrant, I have taken it upon myself to protect them and to keep them from Mr. Matsuki’s wrath and my Chinese friend’s hotpot.

Finally, on the theme of hollows in wooden places; a nest of wild bees has been established in one of the lockers for clothes or towels just outside the door of my sauna. The sauna, and the large wooden tub for cold dips, is in the little patch of trees behind my house. I hadn’t been using the sauna for a while, and there was a little crack under the door of the locker, just big enough for the bees to pass through. Mr. Matsuki has been successful in encouraging wild bees to relocate to his hive boxes, and I asked him to take a look at this busy little colony. His judgment was that if we tried to move this nest then the queen and her workers would leave.

“Let’s wait until October,” he said, “then we can get some honey.”

So, until October, I won’t be inviting guests to enjoy our sauna, and when I use it I do so gingerly, and quietly, closing the sauna door quickly so as not to irritate the bees with the heat and traces of smoke. I also worry that further up the hill, my Australian friend’s sauna has been raided at least twice by bears, who ripped off the wooden siding and roof to get at the honey and grubs in the bees’ nest in the cavities. Bears also raided the hives of my next-door neighbor two years ago, so I hope they won’t sniff the honey in my backyard!

For many reasons then, we need more big old trees with hollows to solve these complicated housing problems. Praise heaven that,saj in our case anyway, this may involve a lot of time, but it doesn’t involve any exorbitant and dodgy subprime mortgages!

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