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When the wind blows - looking back at the Great Storm of 1987

Posted: Friday 13th October 2017 by trustadmin

Horses at work in the Trust’s Sydenham Hill Wood, December 1987 © The TimesHorses at work in the Trust’s Sydenham Hill Wood, December 1987 © The Times

Where were we thirty years ago? It was once said that Londoners will never forget the night of the Great Storm, but since then more than 2 million people are living here and nature’s ability to recover has meant that the memory of that dramatic event is losing resonance. However, for those of us who did reel from the devastation, what lessons could we learn from it?

For it was only on nature reserves, and those woodlands where there was no economic benefits to ‘tidying up’, that nature was allowed to recover. Many felled trees adapted to their new position, sending up new shoots from their prostrate trunks, and learning to find the light in a different way...

So what happened? On the night of 15-16th October 1987 the most violent storm for over 250 years hit southern England from a south-easterly direction, which resulted in 15 million trees being windblown, over 300,000 of those in London, and an estimated a quarter of all those in Kent.

Hurricane force winds reached over 200kph (with 150kph recorded at High Holborn at 02.50am). Eighteen people lost their lives, two of them in London, as well as hundreds of livestock killed or injured.

Windblown trees blocked roads and crushed cars, scaffolding and billboards collapsed, and many buildings were damaged, all of which cost the insurance industry about £2bn – it was the most costly night in London since 1941.

In streets, parks and gardens the devastation was profound, as previously tree-filled landscapes were strewn with fallen giants, their leafy canopies collapsed scattering boughs and branches.

Counting the cost

Croydon lost over 75,000 trees and had over 3,000 council homes damaged with a clear up cost of over £8m, Bexley lost 75,000 trees, and Sutton lost over 50,000 trees. A further 10,000 fell in Lambeth, and 5,000 fell in Wandsworth’s parks and open spaces, the reparation costs of management and re-planting costing over £2.5m. To the north-west the tree loss was still significant: Hillingdon over 2,000, Harrow over 6,000 and Barnet over 4,500 trees.

Whilst the storm was indiscriminate there were some odd survivors. A lone 600-year-old yew survived, as did giant coastal redwoods. But whole plantations of 80-year-old oaks and giant 200-year-old oaks collapsed like matchsticks.

Depending on how trees were sheltered by others, some of the oldest survived, but some of the youngest fell. 1,000 specimen trees fell at Kew Gardens that night, but Wakehurst Place (in Kent) lost 60% of its entire collection – about 20,000 trees.

New horizons were glimpsed from the wreckage but people appeared very affected by what they saw, so many trees which they had taken for granted as almost permanent features, had suddenly fallen. Emotional loss developed once the fears for safety subsided, and the desire to repair and make good was great; significant effort and money was put into the post-storm clean-up.

However, the entrepreneurial spirit of many cowboy ‘tree-surgeons’ offering to sort it out – especially as streets needed to cleared, half-felled trees needed to be ‘made safe’ - meant that much avoidable damage was caused, especially in parks and woodlands. Many of the windblown trees were still alive, but we were – and still are – so used to seeing trees standing tall that they were cut and grubbed up, and the wood disposed of. Machinery was used to dig and tug trees out, damaging sensitive habitats. Much potential timber was burnt or disposed of, as we had no means of storing it to season for later productive use.

Recovery

More positively the Government responded with Task Force Trees, a £2.8m tree-planting programme (all to be spent in 6 months!) and establishing the Community Forests, two of which are within parts of London; Thames Chase and Watling Chase.

These Community Forests aimed to create new woodlands (‘afforest’) on marginal agricultural land to bring about benefits for recreation and wildlife. The tree-planting resulted in millions of new trees, but in many cases too little thought was given to their type, location and aftercare that many died, or were later removed. In addition, it helped to cement amongst the public the idea that ‘improving the environment’ was most easily delivered by planting trees, an idea that is still deep-rooted as attested by well-funded tree-planting programmes that continue.

London Wildlife Trust experienced windblown trees on many of our sites. But we took the light-touch approach, only tackling safety problems, and allowing much of the broken timber to rot down naturally – providing new dead wood habitats to benefit fungi, beetles, and a host of other invertebrates.

For it was only on nature reserves, and those woodlands where there was no economic benefits to ‘tidying up’, that nature was allowed to recover. Many felled trees adapted to their new position, sending up new shoots from their prostrate trunks, and learning to find the light in a different way.

The opened canopies of blasted woodlands brought fresh light onto the floor encouraging wildflowers in the seedbank to blossom, benefitting insects such as pearl-bordered butterfly, and creating an explosion of naturally regenerating stumps (‘natural coppicing’) preferred by birds such as nightingale and wood warbler.

More controversially a number of wild boar escaped from farms, after enclosures were broken by falling trees during the storm, which have since bred and established populations in East Sussex and Kent.

Research later concluded that those woodlands and habitats that were least actively tidied up recovered sooner and better for wildlife. Ecologists concur that the Great Storm (and that of 1990) began to transform our thinking about managing nature, enhancing biodiversity and revised many of our ideas about the beauty of the natural world.

Arguably we also began to accept a wilder nature, and it triggered the start of the re-wilding movement which has subsequently gained traction with the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest but also at the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. And in our cities it helped to germinate a greater awareness of the possibilities of urban greening; more natural parks, green roofs, rain gardens and floriferous verges.

Thirty years down the line the storm’s legacy is still with us. We may yet have a long way to go to make it more resilient for nature but in 1987 there were fewer than 40 nature reserves in London, and very few protected wildlife sites. There are now well over 150 nature reserves and 19% of London is recognised as having biodiversity interest. The winds helped to bring a sweeping change.

Mathew Frith, Director of Conservation


Further information: London’s Hurricane by Mark Davison & Ian Currie, Froglet Books, 1989.

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