Great Storm that made us green and pleasant

Ten years on, new life rises from havoc. David Nicholson-Lord reports
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The Independent Online
At the time, it was seen as a disaster - the worst thing that could have happened to the English landscape. Ten years on, in the view of many experts, it was a blessing in disguise.

A small revolution in landscape management has taken place since the Great Storm of 1987. Nature is left more to its own devices. Dead wood, home to a rich variety of insects, plants and fungi, has come into its own. Dense forests have given way to heathlands and open rides - which is how many of them used to look. And trees are no longer regarded as ancient monuments, immune to old age.

Next month sees the tenth anniversary of the "big wind", the worst storm in lowland Britain for three centuries, which flattened vast swathes of woodland in the south and east of England and left a pounds 1.5bn insurance bill. Most ecologists and environmental organisations, however, now believe it yielded unexpected benefits.

A study by English Nature, the Government's conservation advisers, has shown that the exposed rootplates of many uprooted trees and the holes they left created a "pit and mound" ecosystem characteristic of the primeval forests of Poland and North America, and produced new, often unusual, flora. Wild strawberries and cowslips prospered in the pits; mignonette and ragwort grew on the rootplates.

Dr Keith Kirby, English Nature's forestry and woodland officer, said last week: "Increasingly, people realise it was not so bad. Leaving aside the damage it caused, it was very exciting. In some places we were being too precious about our woodlands. Woods are dynamic things and catastrophic disturbances such as the storm of 1987 are perfectly normal occurrences in a tree's lifetime, but many people felt woodlands were stable and permanent. The storm shook up our assumptions."

Fifteen million trees, about one-seventh of the total in Britain, were felled by the storm, which was at its worst in the early hours of 16 October, 1987, buffeting much of southern England with hurricane-force winds reaching 110 mph. Scores of historic parks and gardens were devastated. Emmetts Garden, a National Trust landscape in Kent, lost 95 per cent of its woodland. Adjoining Emmetts, Toy's Hill lost virtually all its beech trees.

Now, Toy's Hill has a new, young woodland - but it is birch, not beech. One area of Toy's Hill, Scords Wood, has been left untouched since the storm, as an experimental "non-intervention" area, and has become virtually impenetrable. At Emmetts, the loss of trees opened up the canopy, creating a 15-mile vista across the Weald of Kent and new flushes of spring flowers and bluebells.

George Fillis, head gardener at Emmetts, said: "We never heard any of the trees falling at the time because all you could hear was the roaring of the wind and the house shuddering. When we woke up, the whole skyline had changed. It was a hell of a mess and a lot of work, but I don't think it was a catastrophe. It gave us new space and new opportunities to replant."

According to David Russell, the Trust's head of forestry, the storm made people more aware that "trees are organisms and woodlands are shaped by natural processes ... By learning more about these processes and giving them more space to operate, we are intervening less than we did in the past".

There is agreement that many of the trees lost in 1987 were in decline. Chris Baines, a woodlands expert, said the hurricane did a job "which only the boldest of landscape managers would have dared to undertake".

Within Britain's biggest woodland manager, the Forestry Commission, the storm accelerated the move away from the gloomy stands of conifers much hated by conservationists and towards less intensive "mixed" planting schemes with more native, broad-leafed species, and a bigger emphasis on wildlife. Forests such as Rendlesham in Suffolk, Houghton in Surrey, Orlestone in Kent and Turf Hill and Millersford enclosures in the New Forest have been opened up to create heathland and encourage species such as bats, owls, nightjars and sand lizards.

Many people also believe the storm gave an unprecedented impetus to tree planting. The Task Force Trees programme set up by the Countryside Commission in its aftermath has led to the planting of two million trees and to urban initiatives such as the London Tree Forum and the Great Trees of London scheme.

Jim Dewar, secretary of a windblow team set up by the Forestry Commission in 1987 and now chief executive of its Forest Research arm, said an "impressive" amount of planting had taken place along roads in the South-east. "Driving up the M3 after the storm, you could see houses and buildings on either side," he added. "Now it's like driving through forest the whole way."