Friday, 20 October 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 3 – a ripple of disturbance

There may be a belief that nature is best when it is undisturbed.  Leave nature alone, prevent disturbance, keep it calm and peaceful and it will thrive.  This is not true!

High levels of disturbance may create one sort of habitat – a weed community - at the expense of others.  So too much disturbance is a bad thing, and this is probably no surprise. 

However, it is sometimes still not appreciated that too little disturbance is also damaging.  Woods become dark and monotonous.  They have a limited range of conditions within them and so support a limited range of species.    Woods kept as undisturbed, dense, shaded places are not “natural”, they are probably best seen as unnaturally undisturbed!  Without realising it we may have removed and prevented (or just cleared up) the agents of natural disturbance that create diversity in nature.  Take away disturbance and you are not left with nature, you are left with abandonment.

As part of a greater matrix, “old-growth” undisturbed forest is a rare and valuable thing.  It will contain species that are rare elsewhere, often species that are slow to colonise and prone to local extinction. Even this, however will have its own dynamic of natural disturbance and some species in old-growth areas rely on disturbed patches nearby for some stage in their life cycle.  Insects are a good example – some may need old-growth for part of their life cycle, but also need nectar sources from the flowering shrubs in disturbed, open patches at other times.

Ecologists now recognise that an intermediate level of disturbance in a patchwork better explains the presence of our native species than provided either by heavy disturbance or no disturbance.

One thing has become clear over the 30 years that follow the storm, however.  When I surveyed woods after 1987 I thought that the storm provided the answer – this is how forests are kept diverse and this explains the presence of our native species.  On reflection, however, 30 years on we realise that this is not the case.  The canopy gaps formed 30 years ago have now disappeared, they have become part of the forest and, whereas the diversity created can still be seen, these gaps have now become part of the forest canopy.  One storm every 300 years is not enough!  The storm gave us great insight, but it is only one form of natural disturbance.  If we wish to understand nature then we need to look more broadly at all the different forms of natural disturbance.

So what can we learn from this?  If our forests are unnaturally undisturbed and so poorer as a result, can we bring back natural disturbance, or can we manage forests in a way that has the same effect as natural disturbance?

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 2 – what happened?

The night of 15th October 1987 saw storm force winds around 100 mph hitting the south eastern corner of Britain – from Hampshire to Suffolk, some 14 counties in all.  This followed a time of heavy rainfall, soils were water-logged and, being a mild autumn, the trees were still in leaf.  So the full force of the storm hit at a time when trees were actually quite vulnerable.

In practice, however, the wind came with such force that enormous amounts of disturbance were inevitable.  Some 15 million trees (probably an under-estimate) had been windthrown (uprooted) or wind-snapped (broken at the stem).  In addition and uncountable number of trees had experienced major loss of branches from the crown.

The effects were dramatic.  Huge areas had blown flat and, even more frequently, holes of various sizes had been blown into woods.  Swathes of damage and canopy gaps had appeared everywhere.

Strangely, trees seem much bigger when they are laying down than when standing up!  The amount of wood just lying around was enormous

In terms of living memory, this sort of event is so rare that it was considered a freak of nature.  No one could remember anything like this.  But trees live for a long time – forests even longer.  There have been similar events in the past - the great storm of 1703 being even more devastating.  Storms like this may have a return time of around 200 to 300 years.  On the scale of the life span of individual trees, and in terms of the age of whole forests, this was not an unusual event.

So – what were the real effects of the storm on our woods and forests?

A dispassionate examination of what actually happened to the ecology of forests gives a very different picture to the tales of destruction so beloved of the media reports.  The areas blown flat and the canopy gaps created, generated great diversity in forests that had often become dense and over shadowed.  Light was able to get to the forest floor, often for the first time in decades.  In the years that followed we saw a burst of regrowth of the ground flora.  Species flourished where they had previously been overshadowed, in some places species appeared (heather for instance) that had not been seen in a wood for many decades.  Insect life flourished and birds were drawn into the newly created patches. 

As the years went by we saw shrubs regenerating in gaps – species that would not have stood a chance under dense woodland.  As light got into the forest shrubs were able to flower, attracting nectar-feeding insects – and insect eating birds.  Trees sprouted from broken limbs or crushed root plates and spread to fill in the gaps that had formed.  In bigger gaps there was a flush of regenerating tree seedlings – a diversity of species often far greater than was represented in the earlier woodland canopy.

Changes to structure also had unforeseen effects.  Damaged trees supported more fungi and wood boring insects, hole nesting birds had more of a chance to nest and piles of decomposing brushwood provided nesting, roosting and foraging sites for birds and small mammals.  Windblown trees left upturned root plates, regeneration sites for plants and shrubs, and water filled hollows used by wetland plants and amphibians.  We had a case of kingfisher nesting in an upturned root plate here at Woods Mill.

One worry after the 1987 storm was the human need to do something – an impetus to clear up the mess and get things back to the way they should be.  Whilst management might have been entirely justified in special places (tree collections and arboreta for instance) tidying up afterwards caused far more damage to our woods than did the storm.

There may have been great mortality of wildlife on the night of the storm.  But the living space created by the storms beneficial disturbance created enormous opportunity for all manner of wildlife which was able to thrive as a result.

When it comes to wildlife, nature and forests – storms are great!

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 1 – a personal reflection.

1987 was an interesting year for me.  I had just moved to Sussex and was carrying out ancient woodland inventories on behalf of the then Nature Conservancy Council (now Natural England).  And then, overnight on the 15th October, everything changed.

In fact I managed to sleep through it.  Perhaps the most significant ecological event of the century, and I was asleep!  I was living in South Chailey at the time. I awoke to a strangely quiet day - no traffic, no electricity and not many people around.  I ended up walking to work, gradually realising that this was a really significant event.  The whole of the south eastern corner of Britain had been hit by the strongest storm that this part of the country had seen for over 300 years.

The thing that stays in my mind is the smell of crushed wood.  Freshly cut wood has a certain smell, but it is usually limited to saw mills or timber yards; you don’t usually notice it hanging across an entire landscape. Trees were down, roads were blocked, buildings severely damaged and (often forgotten now) areas were flooded because of the rain that preceded the storm.

Enormous amounts of damage had been done, and quite a large number of human tragedies as well.  But, alongside this, the 1987 storm was a fundamental ecological event that deserved proper study. 

I was lucky; I was in the right place at the right time.  I happened to be working for some of the best woodland ecologists in the country – namely George Peterken and Keith Kirby.  They saw the opportunity and decided to take me away from my normal job and engage me in work looking at the ecological effects of the storm.  A short term contract, and later I was able to do similar work for the Wildlife Trusts.

And so it was that I was able to go around some of the most interesting forests and woods in the south east to research what had actually happened and assess what ecological story this might be telling us.

Ecologists had for a long time been looking at how natural disturbance creates diversity in nature.  The old idea of nature being stable and unchanging, that disturbance was a bad thing to be avoided, had been dispelled a long time ago (even if it still remains in popular myth).  Here we had an example of natural disturbance on a huge scale.  This was a rare chance to see something of how nature works in practice.

The storm was not “damage” inflicted upon nature.  It should not even be seen as separate from nature at all.  The storm was nature.  It was an inherent, even a required part of nature – a natural process that drives the way whole ecosystems work.  Indeed this could be just one example of the process of natural disturbance that drives nature.  If we understand that then maybe we can gain a better insight on how to manage nature, how to encourage our natural world to look after itself, maybe even gain a better understanding of our relationship with nature.

30 years later this remains the case.  There is a big story to tell here – and nobody is telling it.  This is what I aim to do in my next few blogs.

Friday, 29 September 2017

West Sussex County Council votes to increase road congestion throughout Sussex.

It seems that WSCC has voted to support an environmentally damaging bypass around Arundel and in so doing increase traffic and congestion throughout Sussex.  If it goes ahead this road will draw in more traffic from elsewhere, will generate extra car journeys, increase car dependency - more traffic, more traffic jams.  To say nothing of the ongoing destruction of irreplaceable habitat, the loss of landscape and ecological connectivity and decimation of populations of internationally protected species.

Mike Tristram, representing the Binstead community, had this to say:

“Yesterday I presented a petition, on behalf of the community of Binsted and over 2000 others who support the Save Binsted campaign, to WSCC’s Environment and Community Services Select Committee.  After my speech, representatives also spoke from Walberton (Parish Council), Tortington Local Community, ArundelSCATE and OneArundel.

“Four of the five community groups gave WSCC good traffic, environmental and community reasons why the officers’ recommendation to support Option 5A should be rejected.  Appalling damage to Binsted Woods, Binsted Park, the village communities using the National Park in this area, and Tortington, were all cited. 

“And yet, four out of the five Select Committee members present voted to trash the ‘Environmental and Community Services’ of this part of Sussex, by supporting Option 5A.  The Select Committee ignored WSCC’s deeply-buried Landscape Strategy policy, and their officer persuaded them to regard as ‘minor’ the fundamental flaws in environmental aspects of Highways England’s consultation. 

“Highways England are acting with unseemly haste, with a toolkit of badly prepared figures and badly researched data, to try at all human and environmental costs to get spades in the ground before the RIS1 money runs out in 2020.  Our local authority representatives, in WSCC and ADC, should not collude in a quick-and-dirty job.

“They seem to think they can do whatever they want on the grounds that the national interest overrides National Park status.  But the South Downs National Park was designated in the national interest.  The Binsted Woods areas affected by Option 5A, some protected wildlife species and habitats, the heritage landscape of governance in Binsted, are all of national importance.  The long term national interest is to save the Binsted area, not to destroy it.”

Friday, 3 March 2017

The Brighton and Hove Mayor’s charity bike ride

Join Brighton and Hove Mayor, Cllr Pete West on an epic 50 mile cycle ride around the boundary of Biosphere through the Sussex countryside.

The event takes place on Sunday 23rd April, starting at 9am, and will start and finish on Hove Lawns.  This is a way of celebrating the Brighton and Lewes Downs Biosphere and also of raising much needed funds for the Mayor’s 27 charities, including the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

The road ride is a 52 miles long circular ride (just short of the London to Brighton distance).  After heading east along the seafront cycle lane and Undercliff Walk, riders follow the A259 to Newhaven before heading north to Lewes and then Cooksbridge.  After a quick refreshment stop at Beechwood Hall riders head west to Ditchling, Clayton and Hurstpierpoint before cycling to Woods Mill, our Head Quarters, where we’ll be delighted to welcome cyclists for another refreshment stop. 

On the way they will pass Pondtail Wood which hit the headlines last year when the new owner bulldozed many of the trees and dumped a load of waste and hardcore on site.

After Woods Mill, riders head south through Small Dole, Upper Beeding and Bramber before crossing the A27 at Shoreham and using the old Toll Bridge to cross the River Adur.  Then they follow National Cycle Network route 2 back to Hove where the finish will be on Kings Lawns (where riders started out from).

The road ride is a medium distance ride by today's standards and most reasonably fit adults should be able to complete it.  It does contain hills but as it is largely skirting around the edges (of the Downs) avoids the worst of them.  There are no Devil's Dykes or Ditchling Beacons on the route!

To register use Eventbrite - it costs £20 in advance, £25 on the day. You can see more on the Mayor's Facebook event page

Once you have registered you will be sent an information pack which includes everything you’ll need to know before and on the day.  Please note that the minimum age for this event is 12.  Under 18s must be accompanied by an adult.

The Mayor's 27 charities are:

  • Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID),
  • Albion in the Community,
  • Brighton & Hove Impetus,
  • Brighton & Hove Food Partnership,
  • Brighton Housing Trust,
  • Black and Minority Ethnic Community Partnership,
  • The Carers Centre For Brighton & Hove,
  • CCHF All About Kids,
  • Cruse Bereavement Care,
  • Emmaus,
  • Family Support Work,
  • Friends, Families and Travellers,
  • Friends of Brighton & Hove Hospitals,
  • GreenCycle Sussex,
  • Headway Hurstwood Park,
  • Martlets Hospice,
  • Money Advice Plus,
  • Moulsecoomb Forest Garden,
  • Possability People,
  • Resource Centre,
  • RISE,
  • Sussex Beacon,
  • Sussex Heart Charity,
  • Sussex Wildlife Trust,
  • Sustrans,
  • The Clare Project.
  • The Clock Tower Sanctuary.

Your entry includes:
  • Experienced ride leaders
  • Route map
  • Route marshals
  • Qualified First Aiders Medical support
  • Full route signage
  • Refuel stops with water and snacks
  • Fundraising support, ideas and tips
  • Regular communications to keep you up to date
  • Huge cheers and support on the day!

Your registration fee helps to cover the costs of organising the event. The event is being organised with support and help from Cycling Support Services

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Greener UK coalition has launched its manifesto urging UK government to use Brexit to restore and enhance the environment

I am delighted that nearly half of our Sussex MPs have signed up to the Greener UK Coalition’s Pledge for the Environment, and I hope that many others will follow suit.  In total some 194 UK MPs now support the pledge.

The Greener UK coalition, consisting  of 13 major environmental organisations, including The Wildlife Trusts, WWF, the National Trust, and the RSPB has launched its manifesto calling on the UK government to restore and enhance the environment as part of its plans for leaving the European Union.

They say, “We are depleting our soils and water supplies, generating mountains of food and plastic waste, changing our climate and making the air in our cities dangerous to breathe. Our wild places are dwindling, and we face the sadness of once familiar animals and plants fading away from our gardens and countryside.”

The Greener UK manifesto launch follows a House of Lords report last week, which identified the risk of a vacuum in the the oversight and enforcement of environment legislation, and the challenge of effectively maintaining the extensive existing environmental protections through the Repeal Bill.[4]

As well as sharing these concerns, the coalition wants to emphasize that Brexit offers the chance to make a greener UK a reality, by:
  • Securing the benefits of existing environmental laws and principles through the Repeal Bill, as the UK leaves the EU.
  • Ensuring the UK continues to co-operate with the EU on energy and climate change, and affirming ongoing investment in, and deployment of, clean energy infrastructure.
  • Introducing new policies and investment that create thriving farming and fishing industries, working with the grain of nature to return our land, seas, lakes and rivers to good health.
  • Passing an ambitious new Environment Act for England, building on the upcoming 25 year plan with measurable milestones for environmental restoration and high standards for pollution and resource efficiency. (New, separate Acts may also be required in the devolved nations.)

Miranda Krestovnikoff, TV presenter and wildlife expert on BBC 1’s The One Show, said:
“With so many of our environmental laws coming from the EU, Brexit has potentially huge impacts for nature across the UK. The government must urgently set out its plans to make sure our wonderful, wild spaces are not put at risk, and that opportunities are taken to improve protections for our natural world.”

Stephanie Hilborne, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said:
“We’ve been heartened by the government’s commitment to transfer EU environmental law into domestic law, though there remain significant unanswered questions about how the UK will replace the enforcement functions currently carried out by EU bodies. But if we are to allow for nature's recovery, we must set our sights higher. Now is the time to raise ambition, establishing bold nature goals, better management of land and seas, and innovative environmental policy that can underpin the UK’s new place in the world. Being a truly global Britain means building a thriving economy in harmony with solutions to the critical environmental challenges that will define the twenty-first century.”

Tony Juniper, leading environmental campaigner and writer, said:
"If we are to seize Brexit as an opportunity to improve conditions for people in this UK then signalling a commitment to create a better environment is one critical touchstone. Looking after wildlife and environment is a vital prerequisite in promoting our health, wealth and security. A degraded environment is bad for our economy and bad for people and as we embark on the process of leaving the EU we need urgently to put in place the kind of framework and ambition that is fit for purpose.”

Ross Murray, President of the Country Land and Business Association, said:
“At this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, we have an opportunity to reinforce our commitment to sustainable farming and land use policies.  In the long term, a resilient and profitable agricultural sector will depend on this. The CLA looks forward to working with all parties, including those in Greener UK, as we navigate through the Brexit process to ensure we develop  world-leading UK food, farming and environmental policies that benefit everyone.”

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The future of the natural environment after the EU Referendum.

The government’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), chaired by Mary Creagh MP has just published its report following its inquiry into the future of the natural environment after leaving the EU.

This makes interesting reading, especially as the Wildlife Trusts combined to prepare a good body of evidence to feed into the inquiry.  The report can be found on the EAC web site and Steph Hilborne, Chief Executive of the Wildlife Trusts national office has written this brief response

A quick read through indicates that some of the Wildlife Trusts key points have got through to the final report.  The report recognizes that Brexit could put farming and wildlife at great risk.  A potential loss of subsidies together with possible tariffs against farm exports could damage the farming industry, making it less viable and less able to expend resources on managing the countryside in an environmentally sensitive way.  Alongside this, the potential loss of The Birds and Habitats directives means that government should provide new measures to safeguard Britain’s wildlife and special places.

The EAC proposes that government should pass a new Environmental Protection Act setting out how it will provide an equivalent or better level of protection after leaving the EU.  Alongside this new subsidy arrangements should be put in place to provide public payments to farmers for providing public benefits – like the promotion of biodiversity, preventing flooding and storing carbon.

If alternative measures are not put in place, the report warns that there could be potentially far reaching consequences for the UK’s biodiversity.