Thursday, 14 November 2013

Mast year

It is raining acorns. They land with a sharp CRACK! upon the aluminium roof of the landrover, amazingly causing no dents. A less bell-like tone is produced when they fall upon the greenhouse, or upon the garage roof, but a steady percussion is now building to create a sustained accompaniment to the afternoon’s artistry. I am in the process of attacking a neglected woodland understory with an improbably small, but nonetheless viciously efficient hand saw. And all the while, it is raining acorns.

2013, it transpires, is a good year to be a pig. Apart know. Sausages. But, right up until the moment when it becomes absolutely necessary for such matters to be broached – porcine sensibilites aside – a free ranging pig must be one of the happiest creatures alive this autumn thanks to the abundance of choice tree fruit blanketing the ground. Layer upon delicious layer of your favourite food – not just apples (the apple harvest is fantastic this year, and so it should be considering how poor it was in 2012) – but acorns too, just as choice a delicacy to a pig. This year will go down in the records as a mast year, a year when the harvest of mast – defined as the fruit of woodland trees – is particularly abundant. And while trees such as oak, ash, beech, hazel and chestnut (sweet and horse) are producing impressive crops, the effects are likely also to be seen in the trees and shrubs in our gardens, with an exuberant clothing of berries on hollies and rowans and hawthorns, to name but three.

The exact cause of this phenomenon known as masting is not entirely understood, although it is clearly linked to both weather and climactic conditions, and it has been observed that some species, such as beech, exhibit this behaviour on a regular cycle (approximately every ten years, although this has become shorter in recent decades). All of this has clear implications for our native wildlife, as the effects of an overabundant supply of fruit and nuts cascades along the food chain. As well as being good news for garden birds and fetching field mice, populations of less welcome creatures will also be seeing a significant increase come spring; the thought of an explosion in rat numbers creates a not altogether heart-warming picture. Still, we should never have got rid of the wolves and the boar and the bears, so it serves us right.

Quite apart from which, all of this reckless superfluity has clear implications for my lawn mower, as more than one of my gardens borders on the woods and now boasts deep insulating piles of acorns across where once emerald turf shone forth. Optimistically I had hoped the mower would sweep this into the grass bag. Sadly, while the second lowest setting on the blades sees the machine ignore the acorns altogether, the lowest height succeeds in mashing, rather than collecting them – mashed acorn being even more difficult to pick up. The leaf rake buckles under the weight (piles of acorns are deceptively heavy), and the leaf blower too is surprisingly impotent in the face of so much brown shrapnel. Leaving me no option but to shepherd them into great piles, and manually tip fistfuls of the things into the barrow. I really don’t want a lawn full of oak seedlings. Undeterred, it’s warming work on a cold autumn day, and I have a plan to roll out the scarifier on them next time I visit.

But still, for a while longer, it is raining acorns.