The latest report from Michael Walter:
I was away in Lyme Regis for five days in mid-February, but increasingly dire reports about Storm Eunice, forecast to make landfall the day we came home, prompted us to return a day early, on the eve of the storm, which duly arrived on 18th February. Storm Eunice and, to a lesser extent, Franklin three days later, were certainly whoppers, but bore no comparison with the 1987 storm, simply known as The Great Storm (that was the days before we made them sound less threatening by naming them). If you are under 40, or didn’t live in southern England then, you won’t have experienced first-hand the true scale of the 1987 storm, whose circumstances differed in at least three major respects from Eunice. In the days following the earlier storm, the view from our garden overlooking Canterbury was of a blue roofscape, with vast expanses of blue sheeting hastily erected over roofs that had largely been ripped away by the storm. Nothing like that happened on 18th February, proving that the storm was actually far less fierce than in 1987. Secondly, and this is where Blean Woods was heavily affected, the Great Storm came at a time when all trees were still in full leaf, presenting a sail to the ferocious wind, and so putting the anchoring roots under enormously greater pressure, which many trees simply couldn’t resist. And thirdly, the autumn of 1987 was a particularly wet one; roots cannot maintain such a strong grip in waterlogged soil, so this predisposed the trees to being toppled. And what a difference those three factors made to the impact on the reserve. Thirty-five years ago literally thousands of trees were laid low in Blean Woods, sometimes in swathes, and no corner of the site was left unscathed; this time around, apart from the myriad carpets of twigs and smaller branches, you had to search hard to see any sign of significant damage. The worst example I have encountered so far is, ironically, just a few paces along the trail from the car park, where a large Douglas fir on the edge of the path had crashed into the wood and so, mercifully, fell away from the parked cars, though leaving a crater that extended into the path. Last century, well before the RSPB was involved at Blean, a small area around the car park had been converted into a conifer plantation, mainly Scots pine and European larch, but with a few Douglas firs thrown in for good measure. David Douglas was an early 19th century Scottish explorer who, in a short life spanning just 35 years, introduced many trees to this country, including the eponymous fir, which is native to western United States. The interest to me of this particular windblown specimen is twofold: for several years it was home to a pair of great spotted woodpeckers, whose chippering young could be heard by visitors as they walked by below. The nesthole was too high up for me to see, so I never established whether, as expected, a fresh one was excavated each year, or if the old one was reoccupied, which would have been most unusual. A second reason for my interest in this tree is that one year, a hawfinch nested at the very top. The hawfinch is one of a whole suite of birds that have been lost to Blean Woods in the past thirty years, and to the best of my knowledge it has not nested here since 2002. Its heyday, as far as I am concerned, was in 1988 when I estimated that we had eleven pairs nesting on a reserve that was then a third of its present size. A shy and possibly always scarce bird in Kent, it nevertheless used to be found across much of the county, but has now been lost from most areas.
Incidentally, if you are still seeking comparisons between the storms, after the 1987 event it was difficult to reach the car park on foot, as there were so many trees lying across the track, and the car park itself had effectively disappeared beneath towering mounds of fallen larches, like a giant’s haphazard spillikins game.
The windblown Douglas fir
A hawfinch (Dave Smith)
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