Great Storm of 1987 rewrote National Trust conservation strategy
110mph winds raged across southern England, Britain’s Great Storm of 1987 wreaked devastation across more than a third 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 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”.
Now, three decades on, the Trust reflects on how such an extraordinary event caused it to re-evaluate the way it manages the countryside 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.”
Toys Hill in Kent, the former home of National Trust founder Octavia Hill, lost 98 per cent of its trees in the storm. In the aftermath, some of the devastated areas were cleared, others were replanted, and a non-intervention zone was 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.
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.
Dr 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.”
The Trust is working with its tenants and partners to reverse the alarming decline in UK wildlife, aiming to restore 25,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat by 2025. This ambition involves thinking and working at landscape scale, with a holistic approach to conservation. As well as developing networks of wildlife habitats, the Trust is ensuring farming practices on its land are carried out in ways that benefit nature, rather than being hostile to it.