Ian Swinney, Ranger at Bookham Commons

Ranger Ian Swinney, Bookham Commons

The Great Storm claimed the limbs of hundreds of oak trees as it tore through Bookham Commons, near Dorking. The night of carnage left houses on the Surrey commons without power for ten days. Ranger Ian Swinney’s young family was forced to cower in the house as the storm raged, using candlelight as their only source of power.

" It was like going back to Victorian times. I looked out of the window and saw one oak tree bending so much so its tips were touching the ground."
- Ian Swinney

The morning after the storm I actually got lost for a short time because the landscape had changed so much.

I spent two days cutting one family out. The beech trees were stacked up two or three trees high across their lane. I hadn’t even got a winch - all I had was a tractor and a big rope.

The aftermath

Bookham Commons is set on clay, which holds the roots of trees better than landscapes such as chalk. As a result, many of the great oaks held but their branches suffered extensive damage. These were hanging precariously from the trees over the pathways in the aftermath of the storm.

Trees on the open plain suffered most as the wind whipped across without barriers. In some instances, trees that were already dead before the storm survived better, as they had no leaves to resist the wind and cause damage.

Aerial shot of nearby Leith Hill Place in Surrey, after the storm
Aerial shot of nearby Leith Hill Place in Surrey, after the storm

There was even salt burn on some of the leaves – caused by the hurricane coming across the sea and transporting spray across the Downs up to Surrey.

We had little resource after the storm – the first arboriculture specialists and tree surgeons weren’t available until 18 months later. So we used our limited resources to mitigate the damage, such as stacking fallen branches around trees to create a barrier to stop people getting too close.

A new dawn after the storm

The storm had many long-term effects on the commons, but they weren’t all bad. For example, the creation of new deadwood habitats saw an explosion in some wildlife species.

" The Agrilus biguttatus (syn. pannonicus) beetle, more commonly known as the oak jewel beetle, likes moist deadwood. In the first year after the storm this beetle just blossomed."
- Ian Swinney

Since the storm beetle species have thrived here. With increased studies the number recorded in the last thirty years has doubled, from 800 to 1550. New habitats, namely dead and moist wood, created by the storm are likely to have helped this.

An uprooted 'phoenix' tree today, 30 years after the Great Storm
An uprooted 'phoenix' tree today, 30 years after the Great Storm

Today, you can still see where the biggest areas of devastation were by the extensive numbers of birch and ash trees. It was these two species that flourished in the wake of the storm.

There are also many ‘phoenix trees’ at Bookham Commons. These are trees that fell but stayed alive, and subsequently sprouted new vertical trunks from the fallen trunk on the ground.

Planning ahead

I try to think hundreds of years ahead in my approach to woodland management. I’m thinning the trees to encourage age diversity – using the leftover timber to create benches and posts.

I hope this approach will build resistance to future storms – should we be unlucky enough to experience one again during my lifetime.