Mast crops down, deer crop up

Published 10:02 pm Tuesday, December 15, 2015

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Last year, the Virginia Department of Forestry put out a request to volunteers to collect and submit black walnuts to be grown for seedlings to be planted around Virginia.

As master naturalists, retirement and opportunity coincided, we gathered four cardboard boxes full of walnuts from Lone Star Lakes Park and delivered them as requested. No huhu.

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But this year, we would not have been able to gather 30 nuts altogether. Of the 40 trees we frequented last year, only three or four had any nuts at all in 2015.

Last year, we could sit on our back deck under the beech trees with impunity. This year, nuts started falling in June (marble-sized), increased through August (ping pong ball-sized), and reached a crescendo in September and October, with nuts like golf balls raining down by the hundreds daily.

At one party, we issued guests stainless steel mixing bowls for helmets before sitting outside.

So let’s discuss mast crop — the number of nuts and berries falling from trees and available as food for wildlife. It’s important to many.

There are two types of mast crops, soft and hard. Soft mast crop species include apples, crabapples, grapes, hawthorne berries and black cherries. All but cherries have been good in Virginia this year. (The cherry crop affects turkey hunters the most.)

Hard mast species include the all-important acorn, as well as beechnuts, hickory nuts and walnuts.

As we suspected, the beechnut crop is up 238 percent from last year. No wonder we’re getting bonked on the binky! Acorns, au contraire, are a different story, down 50 percent.

“So what?” you may well ask. So plenty. The mast crop is only of passing interest to 95 percent of Virginians, but to those who hunt, it is of critical importance. Perpend.

In 2014 there was a huge acorn mast crop — huge! It was the largest mast crop in the 45-year history of mast crop record keeping. Hence the whitetail deer in the woods did not have to move far to find dinner.

As a result, the deer harvest fell 24 percent last year from the previous year, and 18 percent below the 10-year average. Only 190,745 deer were harvested last year.

(A brief aside. We don’t hunt. We don’t mind people who do so and process their deer for themselves and others. We know people who basically feed their family from their deer meat, catfish and a “victory garden.” And, boy, are they healthy! They take the deer that they are allowed in bow, black powder and rifle seasons. That’s how the deer population is managed.)

To resume, 2014 was a great year for the acorn mast crop, very poor for deer harvesting. This year the acorn crop is woeful — again, down 50 percent — which should signal good hunting, From the five or seven hunters we know, most have three deer or so already. An excellent year.

At least the beechnut crisis appears to have passed. Our hundred squirrels in the back yard are happy, and we’re using far fewer sunflower seeds. Every cloud has a silver lining.

But don’t go looking for black walnuts.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers who enjoy exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region. Email them at