By Tony Whitbread
1987 was an interesting year for me. I had just moved to Sussex and was carrying out ancient woodland inventories on behalf of the then Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England). And then, overnight on the 15th October, everything changed.
In fact I managed to sleep through it. Perhaps the most significant ecological event of the century, and I was asleep! I was living in South Chailey at the time. I awoke to a strangely quiet day - no traffic, no electricity and not many people around. I ended up walking to work, gradually realising that this was a really significant event. The whole of the south eastern corner of Britain had been hit by the strongest storm that this part of the country had seen for over 300 years.
The thing that stays in my mind is the smell of crushed wood. Freshly cut wood has a certain smell, but it is usually limited to saw mills or timber yards; you don’t usually notice it hanging across an entire landscape. Trees were down, roads were blocked, buildings severely damaged and (often forgotten now) areas were flooded because of the rain that preceded the storm.
Enormous amounts of damage had been done, and quite a large number of human tragedies as well. But, alongside this, the 1987 storm was a fundamental ecological event that deserved proper study.
I was lucky; I was in the right place at the right time. I happened to be working for some of the best woodland ecologists in the country – namely George Peterken and Keith Kirby. They saw the opportunity and decided to take me away from my normal job and engage me in work looking at the ecological effects of the storm. A short term contract, and later I was able to do similar work for the Wildlife Trusts.
And so it was that I was able to go around some of the most interesting forests and woods in the south east to research what had actually happened and assess what ecological story this might be telling us.
Ecologists had for a long time been looking at how natural disturbance creates diversity in nature. The old idea of nature being stable and unchanging, that disturbance was a bad thing to be avoided, had been dispelled a long time ago (even if it still remains in popular myth). Here we had an example of natural disturbance on a huge scale. This was a rare chance to see something of how nature works in practice.
The storm was not “damage” inflicted upon nature. It should not even be seen as separate from nature at all. The storm was nature. It was an inherent, even a required part of nature – a natural process that drives the way whole ecosystems work. Indeed this could be just one example of the process of natural disturbance that drives nature. If we understand that then maybe we can gain a better insight on how to manage nature, how to encourage our natural world to look after itself, maybe even gain a better understanding of our relationship with nature.
30 years later this remains the case. There is a big story to tell here – and nobody is telling it. This is what I aim to do in my next few blogs.