In October 1987 a weather report told us not to worry, no hurricane was on the way. It was gravely wrong and the worst storm for 300 years hit the UK. Winds of up to 122 mph swept across southern England and the Midlands; landing in Cornwall and leaving via the Wash, Norfolk. It infamously became known as the ‘Great Storm’.
Around 15 million mature trees were ripped from the ground as hurricane winds caused carnage across the landscape. They decimated woods, parks and gardens; blocked roads and smashed cars; ripped roofs from buildings; killed 18 people; left millions of homes and buildings without electricity and water; and cost the British insurance industry more money than any event before or since.
Forty one Woodland Trust woods sustained significant damage, including Blean Woods and Ashenbank in Kent (both Sites of Special Scientific Interest), Tyrrels Wood in Norfolk, and America Wood on the Isle of Wight.
Clive Steward, now a Woodland Trust Site Manager for South East England, had then been working for forestry company Tilhill for just a month. ‘For me it was a baptism by fire,’ he says. ‘I remember waking in the middle of the night and hearing lots of glass breaking, and tiles sliding off the roof and smashing. The next morning I left for work at 7.30 on a drive that would normally take half an hour and eventually got there at around 3pm. In places, every other tree seemed to be down. I edged the car along lanes festooned with frayed green leaves, dodging fallen power lines and tilting tree trunks, and waited while great hulks were cleared off the road. Along the route, marooned householders were trying to cut their way out beyond the thickets of this strange new world. When I finally reached the office, some of my older, more experienced colleagues were in tears, seeing their life’s work in ruins.’
In the aftermath people began clearing and tidying some of the woods; removing the fallen trees, scrapping off the topsoil which was full of seedlings and replanting. Looking back many see this as a mistake, for those woods that were left to their own devises have thrived and recovered far quicker.
The next spring of the fallen trees that were left with roots still in the ground, many sprang back into life sending up shoots from the horizontal trunks. Openings in the previously closed tree canopy prompted a surge of seedling and wildflower growth on the woodland floor and rotting trunks. This in turn benefitted many insect and bird species. The increase in deadwood was also good for saproxylics like stag beetles, while the whole process increased the overall structural diversity of the woods, creating a whole suite of niches for flora and fauna to colonise. For example, noctule bats roost in holes in trees, so benefitted from the damage to standing trees caused by the storm.
The storm changed English woodland and the way many conservationists approached its management. For centuries humans interacted with the woodland around them: coppicing, felling trees, grazing animals and other activities. These actions and those of natural herbivorous grazers maintained an open canopy and diverse structure. As people moved away from woodland use and large herbivores were lost from the landscape, the woods became more uniform, neglected and shady, having a negative effect on a great number of flora and fauna. Although it must be noted that some species still require less managed, stable conditions.
The great storm reopened the woods and encouraged bolder management. Many ecological lessons can be learnt from it, including:
- Tree communities with a diversity of age ranges survived better.
- Mature trees with hollowing heartwood were as strong and often stronger than younger trees.
- Trees with spreading roots fared best.
- Many species subsequently flourished in the lighter, open canopy woods.
- Disturbance can create important niches.
The Great Storm is a kind of once in 200 year event. But, as climate change increases, freak weather is predicted more frequently. We need to help our woods and trees adapt to and survive this; by increasing age and structural diversity, and improving woodland connectivity.
Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser