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Trees give up their bounties

Outdoor Living

RARE BLOW-IN A Baltimore oriole (female pictured), a vagrant from north and central America, has been spotted on Achill Island, thousands of miles from its normal sunny winter haunt.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

With Lorenzo lurking over the horizon we weren’t sure what to expect. Turns out he was exhausted when he finally reached Mayo and all he could do was rattle at the trees until all hope of a golden October was cruelly stripped and brought to the ground. With the leaves went our eagerly anticipated harvest of hazel nuts and almost all the beech mast.
I gathered a quantity of mast and set about separating the tasty kernels from their woody outer shells. It was hard work for little reward and the task would have abandoned had James not intervened. “Look here,” he said, “Just put them by the stove and as they dry out they’ll open on their own and the little nuts will just fall out.”
Of course. Why didn’t I think of that? The work is not yet done though. Each individual kernel is contained within a triangular casing. Although this is brittle and easy to remove, it is time consuming.
“And then, when you’ve finished that,” James went on, “if you put the nuts in a bowl of water they’ll sink and all the bits you don’t want will float at the top. It’s simple.”
He’s right. Yet few people would go to such trouble, for wild foods are no more than a fad. If we go to the supermarket we can buy a bag of equally tasty and far more substantial Brazil nuts for a couple of euros. It’s good to keep the old skills alive though, for one day they might do the same for us.
With a fat content of around 50 percent, plus 20 percent protein, beech mast is one of the more nutritious crops we can gather for free. A word of caution: they do contain a mildly toxic substance known as saponin glycoside, which is known to cause haemolysis, the breakdown of red blood cells causing the release of haemoglobin, so excessive consumption of raw mast would not be recommended. However, as saponin glycoside is destroyed by heating and beech nuts are greatly improved by roasting, there’s your answer. Roast them in the oven until they just begin to brown, give them a shake of salt and you have a delicious snack.
Lest the possibility of damaging red blood cell function deter you, it might be as well to know that the same toxic compounds are found in peanuts and potatoes, as well as broccoli, spinach and even apples, which we have been eating forever with no ill effects.
The huge amount of mast produced this year is something of a bonanza for our wildlife. Wood mice grow fat on the nuts, and as long as the frost stays away they will keep breeding, which will be appreciated by our owl (which hasn’t been seen for a month or more) and by everything else that likes to eat mice. Pigeons have gathered from all around to feast on nuts that have fallen onto the road and been crushed by passing traffic. Flocks of finches have joined them, and one rain-filled windy day the rooks dropped by to fill their crops on their way home from the fields.
The rooks are a good indicator of incoming weather. When they fly far from the rookery we can be sure the day will be settled. If, on the other hand, they return home early, we can rightly expect a turn for the worse. Sometimes they are reluctant to go far at all, but choose to feed in fields close to where they roost, in which case we can be certain that bad weather is either upon us or imminent.
After all that wind I expected to find a few unusual bird species around the place. Perhaps if our storms had been closer to the coast of Portugal that might have been the case, but for now there are lean pickings for birdwatchers. One rarity worthy of note is the Baltimore oriole, a rare vagrant from north and central America which has somehow found itself on Achill Island, thousands of miles from its normal sunny winter haunt. Exactly how this creature crossed the Atlantic I can’t imagine, for it weighs just an ounce. The first Irish record for this species was in 2001 and there have been few since.
For the next week or so it will be worth keeping an eye on the roads beneath beech trees, where small birds will be congregating. And it’s rutting time too. So much to see...