Tree loss in drought exceeds storm toll

By Geoffrey Lean Environment Correspondent
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The Independent Online
More trees have died from the drought of the past three years than perished in the hurricane that battered Britain 10 years ago this week, leading experts believe.

They say that while the countryside was "mugged" by the Great Storm of 1987, it has been "haemorrhaging" with just as devastating effects from the less dramatic, but longer term, recent weather. And they add that trees planted to fill in areas laid waste by the hurricane have been particularly badly hit. The past 29 months has been the second driest period in 140 years.

On the night of 15-16 October 1987, winds blowing at up to 85 miles an hour swept across the country, causing greatest damage south-east of a line from Weymouth to Great Yarmouth.

One in six homes in the South-east was damaged by high winds and falling trees. Insurance companies faced over a million claims, and paid out more than pounds 835m. Nineteen people died.

Nobody knows how many trees were blown down. The Forestry Commission puts the toll at 10 million; other estimates suggest 15 million.

But last week, Mr David Rose, Chief Pathologist at Forest Research - part of the Forestry Commission and the leading authority on tree deaths - told the Independent on Sunday: "It is quite likely that more trees have been lost through adverse weather conditions - the drought, cold winters and frost - over recent years than in that single night. They have caused just as much damage, if over a longer period of time. The results have hardly been noticed, but they are equally devastating."

He added: "In 1987 our forests were mugged, but recent weather has caused a haemorrhaging which is slow and insidious but just as damaging."

There are no figures for the number of trees that have diedin the drought, but it is thought to have been the second most important cause of death over recent years, after poor maintenance. Trees planted after thestorm, but not properly looked after, suffered particularly badly.