Twenty years on, myth of the Great Storm is laid to rest

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Twenty years ago tomorrow, the Great Storm blew into southern England. It cost 23 lives (39 more were lost in the gales of January 1990), but they hardly registered. The enduring memory of 15/16 October 1987 is of ecological disaster: it was the night we lost 15 million trees.

Today that can be exposed for the misleading legend that it is. Inquiries by The Independent on Sunday have established that, since 1987, perhaps as many as 585 million saplings have been planted in the UK, and tree cover is now more extensive than at any time in the last 150 years. It is, at 11.7 per cent, more than double what it was 100 years ago, and has risen from the 9.6 per cent it was in 1987. By 1999, this country had 3.8 billion trees, and today that figure is in excess of 4 billion.

The Forestry Commission, for example, has planted about 416 million additional coniferous trees in the past 20 years, apart from replacing those harvested. To many conservationists, this is not necessarily a matter for glee. The Woodland Trust's Nick Collinson says: "Nearly all the conifers have been planted on heathland, moorland and blanket bog. The claim that we have done a great thing by doubling woodland cover rather sticks in the craw of conservationists, as these are the wrong trees in the wrong places."

But, says the Forestry Commission, broad-leaved trees are now being planted at a rate greater than at any time in our history. Since 1993, the commission, or those to whom it pays grants, have planted markedly more acreage with deciduous trees than conifers. And other agencies are at work. The Tree Council (born of the "Plant a Tree in '73" campaign) has enabled the planting of 20 million trees in the past 22 years, nearly all broad-leaved. The Woodland Trust has planted 5.6 million deciduous trees. Other bodies, have planted millions, too, with the National Trust alone putting in half a million since 1987.

Sadly, in the rush to tidy up and mend the storm's damage, few woods were left to recover by themselves. This was one of the storm's lessons, says Mr Collinson: "By clearing up using heavy machinery, you run the risk of doing far more damage than good. Trees have the ability to rise from what seems like disaster."

That, and the benefits of letting nature run its own innately intelligent course, were not the only discoveries. Ancient trees, with their more flexible, hollow trunks, lighter leaf canopy and deeper roots, survived well, while less wind-hardened, shallow-rooted trees keeled over.

But the real calamity for England's trees had been going on unnoticed for the 50 years before the storm when the South-east lost 40 per cent of its deciduous trees – millions of oak, birch, beech, elm and chestnut. "October 1987 was not an ecological disaster," Mr Collinson says, "it was an ecological opportunity." For all that has been achieved, there is still much to be done. The average amount of tree cover in the EU is 40 per cent. In England, where woodlands are under constant threat from development, it is just 8.5 per cent.

Further browsing: The Forestry Commission pages on the storm at forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-77EBHD

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