Friday, 10 November 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 6 – Controllers versus Arcadians


Should we control nature or should we let it control us?  This is more than a question about practical conservation management. 

On the one hand is control.  This may relate to our sense of responsibility and making best use of assets in our care.  Control means we need to be clear about our objectives, make plans and then recognise when have achieved them.  This, however, breeds the presumption that everything must be under our control. 

On the other hand is nature out of our control.  The word “nature” is hard to define but it generally relates to that being outside the human.  It relates to the wild, Wold and Weald – the non-human, and also to “forest” which in one sense means “outside enclosure”.  If we bring nature under our control it stops being nature.  From this we may develop a view that we need to understand nature and work with it.  Help it, maybe, but not control it.  Sharply defined objectives are not relevant.  We need to recognise when good things are happening and allow nature to take its course.  It teaches us to appreciate surprise.

The first is about working logically towards a pre-determined outcome.  The second is about building a system and allowing properties to emerge.

In a practical sense the first approach may be (for example) to plant trees in order to create a planned wood.  The second would be to put in place the processes of regeneration and natural disturbance, let nature run and we then appreciate the habitat that emerges.

Neither is right or wrong, each may be preferable in different circumstances.  We may need to take a very controlling approach where we have a rare or sensitive habitat which might disappear if things go wrong.  However, we may take a far more hands-off approach in low risk, perhaps degraded areas where there is less to lose, and a lot to gain.

This could reflect two different attitudes for life in general, not just our relationship to nature.  On the one hand is the need for control – the Controllers.  On the other is the idea of putting good things in place and letting the future just happen – let’s call them Arcadians.  The two different attitudes can drive two different mind-sets, which find it difficult to understand each other.  “Untamed wilderness” to the Controllers is the worst form of insult, but to the Arcadians it is the very deification of nature.  Controllers want to know the objective and the plan.  Arcadians want to put good stuff in place and see what might happen.

Modern society is tuned more towards control.  This is probably essential – with our population levels and expectations we cannot just leave things alone and hope it will all be ok.  But the need for control may lead to a view that success is only achieved through complete control.  The 1987 storm reminded us that we are not the masters of the environment. It humbled us.   And, what is more, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Out of control does not mean “wrong”.  Nature out of control can be brilliant!

Like so many extremes, their value is when they are complementary rather than conflicting. 

Control implies responsibility, care and sustainable management.  Sustainable management means we need to understand nature, working within critical limits and so recognizing limits on our ability to control.  So, in a few steps, we move from controlling to realizing the limits of control.  Working in the other direction, appreciating nature for itself reflects a wish to understand nature, how nature can be restored and if not restored then managed.  So in a few short steps we move from appreciating nature to managing it


We need to allow nature to work for itself and then learn about natural processes in order to better understand how management (or control) can be done more effectively.  The two approaches are different sides of the same coin.

Friday, 3 November 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 5 – copying storms


There are two main processes shaping nature: succession, the tendency to grow towards forest, going in one direction; and natural disturbance working in the opposite direction.  The interaction between the two, at all scales and time-scales, creates diversity in nature.

“Rewilding” could be seen as encouraging nature by re-asserting these natural processes – allowing succession to progress alongside re-establishing natural disturbance.  An extra layer to this is the restoration of the things that impact on natural disturbance.  Predators, such as large carnivores, impact on the numbers and behaviours of grazers, such as deer, and so in turn affect natural disturbance. 

Our landscape, however, is very far from natural.  Humans have had a huge impact for thousands of years, probably dating right back to the last ice age.  Restoring wild nature, if it possible at all, is certainly not possible everywhere. 

Maybe there is another set of lessons we can learn from the 1987 storm – if natural disturbance is a good, indeed driving force in nature, can disturbance from humans have a similar effect?

Think of the effects of the 1987 storm.  Areas of woodland were blown flat; light then got into the forest and there followed a burst of regeneration supporting a range of different wildlife which changed as we went through the stages of regrowth.  This created rich and diverse wildlife.  With traditional forest management; an area is cleared, light gets in and there follows a burst of regeneration.  Pretty similar.  There are differences but woodland management basically does the same ecological job as natural disturbance.

One big difference to a wild past is that our forests are but tiny fragments compared to the extensive natural habitat that would have clothed our landscape.  Natural disturbance, however, often needs to work on a large scale.  For instance, 100 acres blown down in a natural forest covering many thousands of acres is just one patch of disturbance.  But in a modern landscape a 100 acre woodland could all blow down at once.  Woodland management, however, effectively creates smaller patches of disturbance in our smaller manged woods.   A large scale disturbance cycle has been replaced by a small scale disturbance cycle - a big natural forest with big holes is replaced by a small managed forest with small holes. In so doing a measure of diversity is retained.

Sympathetic woodland management in a small wood is probably more natural than abandoning it. A small site does not have the scale for natural processes to function whereas management (which you could consider “imposed” disturbance) puts back a proxy for that natural disturbance.

This logic also extends to other forms of natural disturbance and management.  Large mammals would have grazed a wild forest creating openings, maintaining a range of open habitats like grassland and heathland.  Abandonment destroys those habitats but copying nature with domestic animals puts back the natural process of grazing.  Just adding grazers, however, creates over-grazing, potentially reducing diversity not improving it.  Predators would have made grazers move around to avoid being eaten.  Management of domestic grazers by moving them around, avoiding over-grazing and creating patches of different vegetation, can have a similar effect.


The analogies go on.  Beavers dig ditches and create wetlands – we dig ditches and create water meadows.  Wild boar plough the ground and disturb the soil – much of our management (such as extracting logs and ploughing fields) disturbs the soil.  Part of the fun of ecology is seeing how nature functions for itself and then seeing whether there is something in our management that does have, or could have a similar effect.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

30 years after the 1987 storm, part 4 – a taste of rewilding


At risk of over-simplifying hugely, there are two key natural processes that shape the world we see. 

One, “succession”, is familiar to us.  This seems to be what happens if you leave an area alone.  Plants grow, tall plants take over from shorter ones, then scrub invades, to be taken over by small trees, which grow into large trees and eventually a forest forms.  Some consider this to be the end point.  It is even given a name – climax forest. 

However, most of our native species do not live in dense forest.  Most live on forest edges or in open habitats like grasslands.  Even those that require dense forest may require other habitats at some stage in their lives.  So the popular idea that Britain would naturally be covered in continual dense forest is flawed.

We can see the process if we study unmanaged, undisturbed forests.  If undisturbed a mixed forest with say, oak, ash, hazel, holly and beech will gradually lose species as they become over shadowed.  It will head towards beech dominance with a holly shrub layer.  In practice, however, this is interrupted by natural disturbance, re-setting the clock giving, for example, ash, oak and hazel a chance.  This is a small scale example, but this works on a far larger scale driving whole habitat change.

Succession towards a climax forest is only one force.  In the opposite direction is the other key force – natural disturbance.  The 1987 storm reminded us of this.  Climax forest is only a concept, in practice it is continually knocked back by natural disturbance.  In effect natural disturbance continually re-sets the clock on succession.  And this is what creates diversity in nature.

Windstorms, however, are only one form of natural disturbance.  And windstorms alone are not enough to explain the full diversity of nature created by disturbance.  So what are the other forms of natural disturbance that might have created diverse natural habitats in a true natural situation?

These are many and various. 

Flooding, erosion and accretion are examples in wet areas.  Tree death from disease and fungal attack also causes gaps in forests.  The action of grazing and browsing herbivores are perhaps a huge driving force in some areas – an area opened up by windstorms may be maintained as a permanent open habitat as grazers are drawn into the area.  In the distant past wild forests would have been roamed by herds of wild aurochs – a wild cow (now extinct) which was at least 6” bigger than the biggest cow you can ever imagine!  The effect of these would not have been minor.  Beavers are well-known for the way they fell trees and open up forests in wetland areas.  Wild boar virtually plough areas creating swathes of disturbed soil.  Some areas might have been damaged by fire, others by fighting deer stags.  And the effects of grazing and browsing animals would have been ameliorated or driven by the impact of large predators.

There has been much debate recently about the idea of “rewilding” – the restoration of ecosystems by the reintroduction of natural processes.  Some (including some ecologists who should know better!) consider that this is simply a matter of finding a forest and “allowing natural succession to take its course”.  This presumes that the only natural process is succession and denies the presence of natural disturbance.

We do have rare patches of, “old growth forest” – areas of forest that do indeed have very low levels of natural disturbance.  The Mens, one of our largest nature reserves, is an example.  But, generally speaking, denying an area its cycle of natural disturbance is not “rewilding” it is simply abandonment.

Giving nature free reign – the essence of rewilding – requires that we bring back the natural processes that are absent.  And this means bringing back natural disturbance as much as allowing the progress of succession.

A fine example of this – perhaps the best example in lowland Britain is the Knepp estate in West Sussex.  Visit their web site to find out more.

Rewilding, giving nature free reign by restoring natural disturbance and succession, is a great ambition.  It is a popular aspect of nature conservation, we should do much more of it and it could yield great gain for nature and people.  It is not, however, something that can be done everywhere.  Most of our landscape is a cultural landscape where ecology will be driven by management by people.  The 1987 storm and from it our understanding of natural disturbance, can, however, tell us another story.  Human management is just another form of disturbance.  This will be the subject of my next blog.


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.”