FORESTER Simon Leatherdale has vivid memories of the Great Storm of 1987.

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He was living in a timber house in a woodland at Halstead at the time. The house shifted in the storm and when he tried to get out to work the following morning his way was blocked by fallen trees.

“I had to cut my way out,” he says.

His boss over at Rendlesham at the time was a man not usually given to strong emotions, but when Mr Leatherdale telephoned to tell him of the situation in which he found himself, he was taken aback by the response.

“He said, ‘You’ve got a problem? You’re not going to believe what you see when you come up here’.”

The Sandlings Forest – comprising Rendlesham, Tunstall and Dunwich forests – lost somewhere between half a million and a million trees, most mature pines. It was one of the worst-hit areas in the affected parts of the country.

“All the damage happened in, roughly, just two hours,” says Mr Leatherdale. “I understand the strongest gusts of wind to hit the area were recorded at almost 100 miles an hour.

“We lost 450,000 tonnes of timber across the three forests – that equates to 11 years’ worth of timber production. Rendlesham was the worst hit.”

In a normal year, forest managers would expect to lose no more than the odd branch or two to high winds, which goes some way to explain the reaction of Mr Leatherdale’s then boss.

“Forestry is a vocation, not a job, and this man had been involved with it most of his life,” he says. “It was a very emotional thing. You live and breathe woodlands and to see them destroyed like that had a huge effect. Hindsight is a marvellous thing and we now know that a lot of good actually came from the devastation. But at the time you can’t see that.” Mr Leatherdale, who was at the time managing forests in Essex, Cambridgeshire and west Suffolk, was at the heart of the clear-up and rengeration, and went on to take over the management of the Sandlings Forest seven years ago. He retired earlier this year.

“After the storm, the first thing we needed to do was a survey on the ground and by helicopter to assess the damage,” he says. “We had to take to the air because getting round on the ground was such a huge problem. We wanted to see how bad the damage was and how much was recoverable.”

Over the next two years workers from Thetford Forest, which wasn’t as badly affected by the storm, travelled to east Suffolk every day to help clear up and salvage what they could. At the end of those two years 88% of the fallen timber had been saved for commercial use.

“It was an amazing statistic,” says Mr Leatherdale. “In addition, someone had the brainwave that if we put all that timber on the market at once it would cause local prices to plummet. So it was decided to keep it in a wet store in an old gravel pit – 80,000 tonnes of the best logs were put there and continually sprinkled with water to preserve them. They were let out year by year to help keep the price up. As a result, the price didn’t fall.

“If you had put all the (Sandlings) timber that was salvaged from the storm onto lorries and queued them end to end they would have stretched from Rendlesham to Edinburgh.”

Once the fallen trees were removed from the land, the next job was to clear any branches and debris left behind. It was bulldozed to the edges of the affected areas to form “wind rows”. Over the next five to six years the cleared land was re-planted with trees.

“The down-side is that we ended up with a forest that was even-aged and very young, but there were several plus points,” says Mr Leatherdale. “The clearance operation provided perfect conditions for woodlark and nightjar to breed and their numbers rocketed.”

Reptiles, particularly adders, thrived in the woodland debris which had been bulldozed out of the damaged forests to form the wind rows at the side.

“For the birds the gains were short-term,” says Mr Leatherdale. “As the forest was re-planted, numbers started to go down again but certain areas were kept open for them. There were quite a few lessons learned. Whenever the opportunity arises, the Forestry Commission will keep those wind rows topped up. The opportunity was also taken to landscape the forest a bit more: more broadleaf species were planted and the layout wasn’t quite so square.”

After the initial flourish of activity in the first five years or so after the storm there was a lull because there were no trees to harvest. Unfortunately, jobs were lost as a result.

Pine trees take 55 years to come to full maturity but the harvest starts when they reach 25 years, meaning some of those trees that were planted after the Great Storm are now being felled. In many ways, it’s a fitting final chapter to the story for the quarter-century anniversary.

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