20 years after “the great storm”

In 1987 the most powerful storm in 200 years hit Southern England uprooting millions of trees. The following year I got a job as a National Trust Warden clearing and replanting the storm damaged woodlands at Toy’s Hill the property at the epicentre of the storm where 95% of the trees were flattened. Last weekend I had a committee meeting in Sevenoaks so took the opportunity to visit Toy’s Hill and see how it had changed. Toy’s Hill covers about 450 acres most of the area was cleared using tractors, bulldozers and huge bonfires that burned for weeks on end. Afterwards the bare scraped soil was replanted with a mixture of oak and beech but it also was thickly covered the next year in birch seedlings. Those seedlings are now 21 years old.

To be honest it is a pretty boring woodland, it looks just like so many other secondary woodlands where young birch scrub has grown up on former heathland.

In places amongst the birch scrub an odd tree lies rotting.

But the real interest lies in an area of just 50 acres which was left untouched after the storm to study how the woodland would recover if left to nature. I remember putting this sign up 20 years ago and thinking it wouldn’t last long.

The first thing to notice is that of the trees that were blown down only a proportion actually died, many were still attached to their roots and if not cleared away would have continued living as this oak did.

As we head in to the non intervention zone I remember a tangled mass and feared that given 20 years of regrowth that it would be impenetrable actually it was the thick birch scrub of the cleared areas that was impenetrable, the non intervention area had less regeneration, maybe a tree every couple of yards rather than every 6 inches. This coupled with the fallen trees, some living some rotting resulted in a wonderfully rich woodland to explore and tremendously rich and varied habitat compared to the equal aged monoculture in the cleared areas.

Looking around Toy’s Hill today it is a real shame that we cleared so much, it would have been so much more interesting to just clear the footpaths through the woodland and left it to recover. The other missed opportunity was that this area has some of the last remnants of lowland heath in Southern England, when I was there we has set some areas aside to be fenced and grazed thus helping re establish this very rare habitat. Apparently the local dog walkers kept cutting the fences so the plan was abandoned resulting in yet more young birch woodland. The BBC did a story on the storm looking to see what lessons had been learned here

Ray Hawes the Trusts forestry adviser says that today they would leave more to nature though I am not sure we would. The issues were complex, days after the storm the Trust launched a “storm appeal” asking for money from the public to help “repair the damage.” It was this money that paid my wages and those of the many contractors who did the clearance work. By the time I was working thre the Trust and the Nature Conservancy Council (as they were called then) were already of the opinion that the really special aspect of Toy’s hill was the remnant heathland and the fallen ancient trees. By then though it would have been difficult to say to everyone who had given money actually folks we think it’s best to leave it alone.

Then there was a strong, wealthy and eloquent local lobby. They all loved the woodland as it was, mature beech woodland like this. Perfect for dog walking.

The locals wanted it back and were also concerned about “fire risk”. I remember a public meeting where the Trust brought eminent woodland historian Olive Rackham to speak at the village hall. He tried hard to tell the locals that English deciduous woodlands did not burn in the way that Australian or North American woodlands could and that this was not a disaster but a great happening of tremendous interest. He was heckled and shouted down. The woods were cleared and now the locals have 20 year old birch scrub to walk in.

For those that venture off the path into the non intervention zone there are tremendous sights and a very real sense of exploration. There are still a few of the ancient pollard trees that escaped the storm.

And in a few pockets where the storm missed there are also glimpses of how the property used to be with it’s old beech woods and deep hollow ways worn by generations of foot, cart and horse traffic.

One Response to 20 years after “the great storm”

  1. Jim September 27, 2009 at 6:43 pm #

    That's a really interesting post Rob, and should serve as a very important lesson in 'management' of valuable and diverse habitat. It didn't get so diverse and valuable by being cleared every few years and after all, that wasn't the first storm of its kind to occur since late seral stage woodlands came into existence.Wiped out in a few days – as usual by humanity not nature, as the non-intervention areas illustrates.