By Becky Nelson
If you were out and about at all last fall, you noticed that it may have been advisable to wear a hard hat when walking under oak trees. With little snow on the ground now, it’s still easy to see the prolific acorn crop carpeting the forest floor anywhere an oak tree stands here at the farm. The mighty oak had a “mast year,” meaning lots of acorns were produced last year. Mast is just a fancy word for fruit or nuts. An oak tree has a higher yield than “normal” every two to five years. With the mast year come a lot of mast eaters, as well, and we are seeing a spike in the number of squirrels and chipmunks around here. The ebb and flow of nuts and critters is pretty predictable. We may be in for another squirrel apocalypse like we had a couple of years back.
As much as we like to think we know about the natural world and why things happen, there is a lot of uncertainty as to why trees have bigger crops some years than others. We know a whole lot more about domesticated trees as we crop them for their apples, peaches, cherries and oranges. Or at least we think we do. I get excited every spring when I see loads of blossoms in the apple orchard, sometimes disappointed at picking time as only a few of those blossoms actually became apples. Frost, wind, pollinators, water, daylight, pests … all affect just how many fruit actually make it to the picking basket.
So it goes for the oak tree, I assume. Maybe because last year suffered such a drought the trees reacted with a need to procreate and perpetuate while under stress. Maybe springtime conditions were ideal to pollinate the oak blossoms and create lots of nuts. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Whatever the conditions or triggers came into play, we ended up with a lot of nuts on the ground this winter.
The gray squirrels are extremely happy about the abundance of food. I have five squirrels that frequently raid my feeders, not happy with just the oak, beech, butternuts and walnuts available just within a short distance of the house. The deer must be happy, as well, as with almost no snow cover, it must be easy to scrape what snow there is aside and eat some tasty nuts out in the forests around us. We are lucky here in New Hampshire as we have preserved much of our forested nature, but we need to be cautious as we move forward to retain the forest landscape.
According to reports from the U.S. Forest Service, New Hampshire was the most forested state in 2012 at 84%. The 2020 report shows the forests shrinking, now at 82%. A little over a quarter of the forestland in the state is owned by federal, state and local governments, with the rest of the forestland here in the state held by private citizens. In all, there are 4.69 million acres of forestland in the state. The concerning part to me is that there has been a decrease of forested acres from 4.77 million acres in 2014. When you look at the big numbers, a decrease of .08 million acres doesn’t seem like much, but broken down into “little” numbers, that is 80,000 acres. That is huge. That is a lot of trees. Our little farm is a bit over 250 acres. If all the land in Claremont, Cornish and Newport combined were clear of trees, that would be about the “new” area that lost all forestation over the last six years. That is a trend that should concern us.
If all the shrinking forestland was being converted to growing farmland instead of developed sprawl that would be a less concerning alarm. But that is far from the case. All of the New England states except Vermont show decreases in forestation over the last six years, and the downward trend concerns me. I am pleased and proud that we have conserved our little corner of the universe in perpetuity and the farmland and forestland here will be farmland and forestland forever. I wish more would commit to land preservation and promote urban forestry projects.
If you are thinking of planting a tree at the edge of your lawn, think about planting a mast tree. We need those oaks, beeches and walnuts and all the irritating squirrels and chipmunks that come along with them.
Becky Nelson is co-owner of Beaver Pond Farm in Newport, New Hampshire. You can contact her through the farm page on Facebook and Instagram, visit the retail store or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.