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12 Jan 2022

Storm Arwen – an opportunity arises

Written by Chris Wardle, Gardens and Designed Landscape Manager, Aberdeenshire and Angus
An aerial view of a large estate with an extensive area of flattened woodland in the foreground. Many trees are lying on the ground and resting on others. In the background a walled garden can just be made out.
After the storm, the long clean-up process has commenced. But how do we do this and what opportunities does it present?

Storms are not a new phenomenon and they are likely to become more severe in the future. However, what made Storm Arwen stand out was the speed and severity of its impact and the fact that it affected so many people. In an age where we rely so heavily on electricity, communication and transport, the effects of the storm were felt abruptly in the communities where these facilities were removed in a matter of hours.

‘Resilience’ is a term that has been widely used after the events of that evening in late November. This word can apply to the environment as much as to people. The woodlands that we lost on many of our North East estates have withstood many storms over the last few decades but they were nothing compared to Arwen. The lesson that we have learned is that we need to have woodlands and natural environments that have a built-in resilience to the ‘new normal’ of weather patterns.

The history of our woodlands

Many of our estate woodlands in the North East are in fact a consequence of a previous extreme weather event. In 1953 much of Scotland was hit by what became known as the Great Storm. A hurricane swept across much of the country and felled millions of trees. As a major landowner at the time, the then-young organisation of the National Trust for Scotland led the way in the mass replanting of plantations in many locations, filled with species such as Sitka spruce, Norway pine, larch and Scots pine.

A black and white photograph showing the devastation to a woodland after a hurricane. Almost every tree has fallen over a huge area; just a handful remain standing and they have lost most of their branches.
An old photograph showing some of the damage caused by the Great Storm of 1953

These were all popular species of that time, and remain so today. These trees (as a commercial crop) have now reached a mature stage and are ready for felling. The process of harvesting the timber to support many major industries within the UK, such as paper production, biomass and timber for construction, had already been gathering pace over the last few years in a careful and planned manner. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!) nature has overtaken us and accelerated this work.

We were already on a journey to reinvent many of our estate woodlands, back to how they were before the 1953 storm. Much of the news on the climate crisis mentions the need to retain and develop natural habitats with space for nature to thrive and grow, away from the monocultures of commercial forestry. Monocultures are not resilient to the effects of climate change. Modern woodland management is focusing on providing a matrix of plants that have an ability to change and adapt as the world changes – be it warmer, wetter weather or colder, drier weather – and that can withstand the impacts of diseases spread by the movement of trade and people across country borders. And so, we have to look at this recent storm as an opportunity for us to now begin planning our woodlands of the future.

The Old Wood of Drum

A perfect example would be at Drum Castle and Estate. The Old Wood of Drum is a remnant of a habitat that is very rare in the UK: a wood pasture system. There may be as few as 20 such sites in the whole country. The remnant at Drum was once part of a much larger hunting forest that would have extended across hundreds of thousands of hectares in Royal Deeside. After 1953, the land here in the care of the Trust was replanted with plantations of mostly Scots pine, and there was a plan to thin and gradually replace this with the indigenous oak woodland pasture system. As devastating as the effect of Storm Arwen was, an incredible opportunity has now presented itself to widen and reinstate this ancient important habitat, both for future enjoyment and to boost the specialist wildlife flora and fauna that thrives here. We plan to replant with oak and hazel, yew and holly.

As with all woodland management, our goal is not to see a result in our lifetime (or even our children’s lifetime) but to create and recreate something for many generations ahead. Leaving this legacy is something I personally find incredibly exciting!

The replanting process

The initial clear-up has prioritised making sure our estates are safe to visit – this work will continue for a while yet. Specialist contractors are hard to find and are exceptionally busy with the work that is needed all across the region.

The National Trust for Scotland has to follow the rules established by Forestry and Land Scotland. We are not allowed to fell and extract timber without certain permissions. These rules were changed a few years ago to prevent unscrupulous landowners from felling and clearing trees and degrading the environment at will. The timber extracted from our land is part of the much wider strategic timber reserve of the whole country – our small part has to be accounted for and processed accordingly to make sure that the industries mentioned previously have a sustainable and consistent supply chain.

Felling permission take time to process and assess for suitability, and then the engagement of suitable contractors has to be planned. It may well take many, many months (even a year or more) to get to a point where we have dealt with all the issues left by Storm Arwen. After 1953 it took nearly 3 years and a huge manpower effort to clear all the timber, but we hope that we may be a little quicker this time! Throughout the process, we must remain mindful of the safety of visitors and the wildlife that inhabits our woodlands – even if the trees are flat on the ground. Once the ground is cleared, we can then start to replant for the future.

A large field is almost filled with newly planted young oak trees. They have plastic sleeves around their trunks for protection. In the background, an established oak woodland can be seen.
Hope for the future

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