Have you noticed the Holly trees in the churchyard and Blackmore Garden?  They are overloaded with bright red berries.  It is a super year for some tree fruits, traditionally called a mast year from the old term for tree fruits that fattened pigs let into the forest.  

Every few years the ideal weather conditions come together and trees are laden with a bumper crop of fruit.  This is particularly true for trees with large fruits and seeds, Beech,Hazel, Oak and Chestnut.  The long hot summer saw some trees suffering drought stress but some areas of the valley have ample supplies of ground water feeding springs and the river.  In these areas the trees have enjoyed the glorious summer weather and are now heavy with fruit (acorns are fruit botanically).

In years gone by, mast years were very important to rural folk.  They provided a chance to fatten pigs before the animals themselves were harvested in preparation for winter.  Pigs were let loose in the woodland and left to roam feeding on the acorns, chestnuts, hazel and beech nuts, this was called a right to pannage.  

Folklore will tell you it is the trees feeding nature before a harsh winter but, whatever trees might know and think, they are not weather forecasters.   Producing all this fruit is a drain on the tree’s resources but scientists think the occasional mast year is good for the trees.  

It is not just pigs that will feed on the mast, there are many wild species such as deer, squirrels and mice that feed on the fruits.  Also there are insects such as the Piercer Beech Moth that lay their eggs in the developing fruits.  In some years the whole crop will be destroyed by the caterpillars.  In a mast year, there is so much fruit that the wildlife cannot eat or spoil it all.  Studies of Beech woods show that nearly all the natural regeneration is from mast year seeds.  The exhausted trees do not produce much fruit in succeeding years and this helps to control the population of seed predators.

As our climate changes, mast years are showing signs of disruption.  Forest scientists are watching anxiously, hoping that this one of our natural patterns will persist.

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