AS 110mph winds raged across southern England, Britain’s Great Storm of 1987 wreaked devastation across scores of National Trust woodland.
Hundreds of thousands of trees – some aged more than 400 years old – were lost, on 3,000 acres across 58 sites. The landscape had been torn apart, and the conservation charity faced the biggest outdoor repair job in its history.
“It was a battle zone” says gardener Alan Comb, who had started work at Emmetts Garden, Kent, just a week after the storm hit. “There were trees sticking up like totem poles”.
Martin Sadler, now a Senior Gardener at Petworth, says, “I was only 18 and I’d never seen anything like it before. The trees came down like dominoes.”
During the aftermath of the storm, the Trust took several approaches to managing the clean-up and restoration of its woodlands. Some of the devastated areas were cleared, others were replanted, and non-intervention zones were left alone to regenerate naturally.
In the untouched areas, trees that seeded naturally were allowed to grow and, in many cases, are developing faster than those that were planted. This learning affected the way the Trust now manages the land in its care.
Tom Hill, National Trust Trees & Woodland Officer in the South East, said, “Today, we work much more closely with natural ecological processes and, where possible, allow damaged woodland to regenerate naturally. The National Trust looks after more than 25,000 hectares (62,000 acres) of woodland, 36% of which is in London and the South East, so it’s vital that we continue to evolve our approach to woodland management to help it to thrive.”
Most of the trees that fell at Knole in Kent were left as deadwood, which benefited fungi, plants and wildlife, as well as the trees that grew to replace them.
Ninety-five per cent of the woodland surrounding Emmett’s Garden in Kent was destroyed in the storm. Although the gardens have been replanted and woodland regenerated, remaining tree stumps and fallen specimens act as a continuing reminder of what happened.
Down the road, Toys Hill, the former home of National Trust founder Octavia Hill, lost 98 per cent of its trees. After the clean-up, some of the areas left alone flourished spectacularly, benefitting ecosystems and wildlife.
Light allowed in by the removal of so much of the canopy caused dormant seeds to burst into life, including native clematis, honeysuckle and heather – unseen in the area for more than a century.
Birds and dormice also benefited. The woodlark and nightjar population increased, and little owls, tawny owls, buzzards, hobbies and sparrow hawks exploited the more open woodland.
The storm also exposed tree rings hidden for centuries, enabling the Trust to date them and reveal more about the history of the special places in its care.
David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust, said, “The fallout from the Great Storm helped the Trust to understand that sometimes, in order to restore a healthy, diverse natural environment, the best approach can be to do nothing at all. Now more than ever, it is important that we find the right balance between human principles for land management, and letting nature take its course.”
“We’re conscious that as the climate warms, we are likely to face more extreme and unpredictable weather. We will respond to this through active conservation work, like providing trees with more space to take stronger roots against high winds, and giving areas the opportunity to regenerate and recover naturally.”
In the years following the storm, the Trust planted 500,000 trees, preferring young saplings to semi mature trees due to faster establishment. Where necessary, the Trust resurrected garden drainage systems to provide optimum growing conditions and selected species better suited to extreme weather.
Through careful management of the land in its care, The Trust is working to reverse the decline in UK wildlife, aiming to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat by 2025.