Nature Beats Out Effort to Help It After a British Hurricane

Untouched areas recover faster than replanted ones, 10 years after the 'Great Storm. '

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Early one morning nearly 10 years ago Raymond Hawes was startled when the branches of a tree crashed through his bedroom.

Like millions of other residents in the region known as the "Garden of England," Mr. Hawes was at the receiving end of the "Great Storm," a hurricane which felled 15 million trees. When dawn broke, he recalls, "I ground my teeth with annoyance."

But 10 years later, Hawes, now a forestry adviser with Britain's National Trust, realizes that the worst hurricane to hit England since 1703 set the scene for an important lesson.

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In the aftermath of the hurricane, local organizations spent millions of pounds replacing fallen trees with saplings. But, Hawes says, "much of the laudable effort was counterproductive."

It was in places where fallen trees were allowed to remain on the ground and "nature was left to its own devices," that recovery was quickest.

Today at Toys Hill, near Sevenoaks, for example, where priceless oak and beech forests were decimated, the untouched areas are doing best.

One explanation for the recovery, says David Russell, head of forestry at the National Trust, is that the storm removed tree canopies that had prevented sunlight from reaching the ground.

The result is that in many areas of Kent and the neighboring county of Sussex in the southeast of England, plants, insects and birds unseen in the region for hundreds of years, are beginning to thrive again.

No warning of storm

Weather forecasters gave no warning of the gale that roared in from the south on the night of Oct. 15, 1987, damaging the millions of trees in forests, public parks, and private gardens as far north as London.

In the southern counties near the English Channel, the damage was vast.

When the extent of the devastation was realized, the government in London set up Taskforce Trees.

Local authorities were given cash to plant millions of saplings.

Citizens groups launched special collections to finance the hire of tractors and earthmoving equipment to clear the ground of fallen tree trunks and broken branches.

But, according to Peter Raine, director of the Kent Wildlife Trust, several mistakes were made. One of the worst was to send bulldozers into areas where the soil was very wet.

Good intentions go awry

Not only did large areas "end up looking like [parking lots]," Mr. Raine says, "trees planted in the compacted soil languished and died."

Says Raine, "More damage was done by well-intentioned cleaning up than by the storm itself. Many of the trees planted that autumn were planted hurriedly and badly."

At one site replanted with 200 trees, only five are still living, despite attempts to shelter them from the elements and animal pests by wrapping protective plastic tubes around the base of the saplings.

But "Woodlands where a noninterventionist approach was taken did much better," Raine says.

Trees, animals return

Already, saplings and shrubs up to 20 feet high have begun to grow. Species such as maple, sycamore, and ash are doing well.

So too are flora and fauna. Violets and primroses are firmly established. Even woodpeckers and some species of bats have returned to areas they have not inhabited within living memory.

Tony Whitbread, a conservationist with the Sussex Wildlife Trust, reports that in an ancient wood near Petworth, which suffered badly during the hurricane, beech and oak seedlings are flourishing.

"Storms are a part of our ecology and a major initiator of change," Dr. Whitbread says. "Natural disturbance adds variety to a woodland," he says.

Important long-term lessons in forest management also are being learned from study of the Great Storm's aftermath.

Nick Brown, a researcher at the Oxford Forest Institute, believes it is unwise for foresters or homeowners to thin out trees too vigorously in a woodland, because those that remain are left exposed to violent winds and are likely to "blow over like matchsticks."

Dense forests where trees give each other protection from strong winds have a better chance of surviving from violent storms.

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