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It's a "mast year"...of course it is I hear you say

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 11:35 UK time, Thursday, 28 October 2010

You'd be forgiven for not knowing this, certainly judging by the sea of blank faces around the Autumnwatch production office, although there were a few smug ones too.

'Masting' refers to a natural phenomenon where exceptional amounts of forest tree fruit are produced, such as acorns and nuts.

The OED defines "mast" as :
a.The fruit of beech, oak, chestnut, and other woodland trees, esp. when fallen and used as food for pigs, etc. Also in extended use and (rarely) in pl. Also (in early use): pasture for pigs (obs.).

And "mast year" as:
n. a year in which woodland trees produce a good crop of mast.

So while "mast" is usually referred to within an agricultural context, a great crop of woodland fruit means a lot to the birds, mammals, insects and fungi which live there. Its by no means restricted to our habitats and can be seen across the globe.

And 2010 seems to be a mast year, with bumper harvests of nuts & fruit.

But why does it happen?

Does Vseed = V env (i) + V mast - V const?

Here's a Google Scholar search of research into masting to get you started.


  • Comment number 1.

    I was walking through the oak woods on the Quantock Hills a couple of weeks ago and it was literally raining acorns! I thought the local squirrels were on the warpath!

  • Comment number 2.

    Kate's just said beech nuts are poisonous... I thought they were edible, a bit like sweet chestnuts?

  • Comment number 3.

    my friend lives in goshen, north west connecticut. we were there with them at the end of august and her neighbour said "it will be a heavy winter with lots of snow". on asking why she said that the berries and leaves were falling much earlier in the season. she went on to say that it didn't happen every year. when you mentioned 'mast' year, it just made me think of that point and does it have any meaning?

  • Comment number 4.

    I'm not at all sure beech mast is poisonous, historically it's been eaten by people in hard times, it's in the food for free books, and i've eaten it.

  • Comment number 5.

    Beech nuts are deffinatly not poisonous. you can eat the nuts from the beech tree from late september onwards, you can crush and squeese out the oil of the beech nuts to cook with and you can also eat the beech leaves when they are almost tranlusent in April. I expected Kate to know her stuff?! She has dissapointed me :(

  • Comment number 6.

    In response to Superkingfan. It seems to have been raining acorns everywhere as I have two fantastic chips in my car windscreen both unbelievably caused by acorns! It has never happened to me before.

  • Comment number 7.

    I have eaten Beech mast for over 60 years with no ill effects. Peel the triangular fruit and eat the kernel, small but tasty

  • Comment number 8.

    I was astonished to hear Kate Humble say that beechmast was very poisonous, because I've eaten it for years, and very good it is too. I began to get worried, but reassured on seeing that other people also enjoy beechmast. Did information about yew trees get mixed up with that on beech trees?

  • Comment number 9.

    I remember that we used to collect Beechnuts when we were kids, take them out of their three sided shells and salt and roast them like peanuts - are they really poisonous Kate? we also used to collect and eat the young leaves of the Beech, they are really tasty with a slight vinegar tang.

  • Comment number 10.

    Beech mast is not poisonous I have been esting it for 60 years. Come on Kate, get your facts right!

  • Comment number 11.

    While it was a surprisingly good year for horse chestnuts (given the prevalence of leaf miner and 'conker canker') and not a bad year for sweet chestnuts in Richmond Park - I saw chestnut pods opening on the trees (usually the parakeets clean them out before this) - it certainly wasn't a bumper year for the oak trees. The last really good one for them was 2007. That said some of the hawthorn trees have been red with berries. I've been chasing this up on nature bulletin boards for the past few years and different areas seem to have different 'mast'years and dearths.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hello all, I have a question about beech mast/nuts. There is a beech tree in my garden and a hedge (they all stared off as a beech hedge boundary over 100 years ago and one has been allow to grow (I have a photo of the hedge from 1908). My question is , why does the tree produce nuts/mast, but the hedge - which is just as old, doesn't? The only thing I could think of was the diference in height, if so - why would this make a difference to producing mast?

  • Comment number 13.

    With reference to the Yew Tree - the "fruits / berries" should be referred to as ARILS.

    Oxford English Dictionary: "an extra seed covering often coloured and hairy or fleshy e.g. the red fleshy cup around a yew seed."


  • Comment number 14.

    Kate said that beech nuts were poisonous for us but you can buy beechnut oil and I also often collect beechnuts from trees in my area of west London and eat the kernel inside with no side effects! I also noted that Chris wouldn't lick his finger when he was handling yew berries. I totally agree with him that almost all the yew is poisonous but you can eat the berries (not the seed!) with no ill effects at all! If birds do it successfully, then there is no reason why we cannot. I do agree that it is not something you encourage children to do it! They taste sweet and very nice!

  • Comment number 15.

    waxwings(20) in my garden which is in Daventry [Personal details removed by Moderator].


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