Author Tony Whitbread
The 16th October this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Great Storm of 1987. Maybe this is a good opportunity to look back and see how the storm, and our response to it, changed our perceptions about nature.
At the time I was lucky enough to be working for the Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England). Even more luckily, my boss decided to get me to look at the effects of the storm – what was its effect in terms of nature conservation?
The storm caused a great deal of distress, with property damage and personal tragedies all over the South East. However, as an ecologist it was pretty clear that the storm was not a bad thing at all. Indeed, in terms of its effects on the semi-natural woods of the south east, it was a major boost to woodlands and their wildlife!
Storms of this severity happen here about every 100 to 200 years – longer than living memory so on our human timescales we see them as one-off disasters. However, in terms of the lifetime of a tree – or a whole wood – this was a relatively frequent event. Storms are part of woodland history.
But with all that damage surely this was just a “disaster” that nature had to “recover from”. Well no. In practice this was a natural event that had huge beneficial effects on our woods.
Woods are not stable unchanging entities. There are many natural processes at work in woods, all driving change, and this creates diversity. Storms, or windthrow, blow trees over, open up gaps in the canopy, allow light in to the woodland floor and create dead wood. There then follows a pulse of natural regeneration, first of low-growing woodland flowers, then of bushes and shrubs and eventually the trees grow back to re-fill the canopy. Animals steam in to make use of the great structural diversity now found in these woods. Woods that might have been dark and overshadowed before the storm become light and airy with expanses of vibrant natural regeneration. Birds can get in to nest and forage, insects find a home and wild flowers grow.
The following year we saw bluebells and heather growing on areas previously bare of plants. Birds like willow warbler, black-cap and nightingale could find shrubs to nest in and insects to forage on and woodpeckers found trees to live in. Fungi, the natural recyclers on the woodland floor, were also enhanced by the mass of dead wood now found within a forest.
Obviously there were exceptions to this general theme. Orchards, tree collections, street trees and individual specimen trees might have been lost. Also in some locations the opening up of the canopy allowed damaging invasive species, like rhododendron, to spread. And people sometimes mistakenly cleared up far too much after the storm, causing far more damage that the storm did itself, but these were occasional specific situations rather than a general picture.
Overall, however, far from being damage that nature has to recover from, storms are in fact an engine to woodland ecology, driving its ecological diversity.
This, however, should not be surprising. Conservationists have often said that a managed wood is better than a neglected one. Managing nature seems like an oxymoron, but in practice our woods are too small for nature to have free reign and create diversity for itself. Management recreates the diversity on a small scale that nature would originally have done on a large scale. The 1987 storm reminded us how nature creates diversity for itself, and also showed us how sympathetic management mimics the effects of nature.
The storm reminded us that nature is a changing, dynamic thing, full of its own processes and organised according to its own rules. They are the drivers of vegetation change, the engine of woodland ecology and the creators of a rich and diverse wildlife.
Michael Fish's Infamous Weather Forecast on the Eve of the Storm