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Country Gentleman: Learning from the woods

A blue-and-white flycatcher is seen singing in Shinano, Nagano Prefecture, in this photo taken on May 10, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

I came to live here in northern Nagano in 1980. In order to learn more about the surrounding mountains and forest I joined the local hunters association and got a Japanese gun license and a gun.

    I learned so much walking the winter mountains with local hunters, most of it good, about hares, bears, pheasants, all kinds of wildlife, and about local legends. The downside of this was that I also learned what a pitiful state Japanese forestry had fallen to. Back in those years the Forestry Agency was cutting the last of the old forests all over Japan, including the ancient mixed forests on our mountains of Kurohime, Iizuna and Madarao. They were cutting these wildlife rich woods and replacing them with single species plantations of cedar and larch. Moreover, most of the conifer plantations already planted were not being tended and trimmed, so the trees tended to be overcrowded and spindly. Sadly, nobody was looking after the mixed woodland "satoyama" either, so these traditional havens of local wildlife and woodland blessings were turning to dense and often sickly "yabu."

    In 1986 I began to buy neglected local woodland, with the intention of bringing it back to its original biodiversity. In order to do that I needed local help and expertise. The most knowledgeable man I knew had been one of my companions in the hunting association, Mr. Matsuki. For 16 years we worked together on the woodland, and at his advice I called our woods "Afan" after a woodland park in my native Wales. In 2002 I donated this woodland and its various assets to form a new trust, which is named The C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.

    In the last 31 years we have done a lot of work and research in our woods and very importantly the wildlife seems to recognize this. To name animals alone we have deer, wild boar, foxes, martens, badgers, weasels, hares, squirrels, flying squirrels, dormice and several other kinds of small mammals ... and recently monkeys ... who either dwell in or frequently visit our woods.

    In 2010 we were able to build a fine new center, constructed entirely of Japanese timber and big enough to hold conferences, seminars and dinners. This included research on birds, butterflies, aquatic life in our several ponds, conduits and streams, as well as the plant, insect and animal life that has returned to dense cedar stands of the national forest adjoining us after we thinned them out using horses.

    For the first 16 years it was I who funded both work and research, and now the trust has taken over. We carry out all kinds of woodland research, and then we bring the experts in their different fields to get together, present their work, and then discuss it with all of us. I think that this is so valuable and important.

    All life is interconnected, and it is an inspiring thing to discover these special links in talking to somebody in a different research field.

    In our sessions we have university professors, students, independent research workers, foresters, as well as local experts who have never been to university. We talk about what research and what woodland work should be done next. What we don't know, the woods will teach us.

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    This is the third installment of a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.

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