Wild is the wind

Blog post by Robert Morgan on 23 Jan, 2024
The recent storms have up-rooted trees, broken branches and burst rivers into surrounding fields, but nature can thrive on a good shake-up says NWT Reserves Officer Robert Morgan. 

I haven’t checked the data, but I’m certain we have more frequent stormy weather. In fact, since 2015 these seemingly more regular storms have been given their own names. So now, in readiness for each year’s quota of gales, a list of names is compiled jointly between Met. Éireann, the UK Met. Office and KNMI (The Dutch national weather forecasting service). They alternate between male and female, and the storm’s direction of approach influences whether the name sounds Irish, Dutch or British.  

It fell to Fergus, Gerrit and Henk to batter the UK during December and early January, and seven other named storms have hit the UK since September. This is something we’ll have to get used to, as meteorological scientists are agreed that climate change will usher in many more storms each year (warmer North Atlantic air carries more moisture and creates additional turbulence in the atmosphere). This has wide ranging and significant consequences for us, but nature too will have to adapt to the changing seasonal weather patterns. In recent times it has felt like an eleven-month spring and autumn, with summer patiently waiting to deliver its four-week drought, a cold winter is a very rare occurrence now.    

Potter Heigham (c) Adam Pimble

Potter Heigham (c) Adam Pimble

In more predictable times October was considered the month of storms, and I’m showing my age when I say I clearly remember the extra-tropical cyclone that hit Southern England on the night of the 15 and 16 of October 1987, or as it became better known ‘The Michael Fish Hurricane.’ I’m not sure if it’s true that Seven Oaks in Kent became One Oak, but the 115 mph winds tore through our woodlands, with well over fifteen million trees sent crashing to the ground. A great deal of research was carried out in relation to the storms effect on our woodlands and the wildlife within them. Virtually all the findings were positive, and it appears that most habitats, woods particularly, flourish after a blustery storm. Nature, it appears, is a little better suited to dealing with these more frequent weather events. 

Our trees are braced for westerly winds, so if a storm runs in from the east our woodlands often lose much more timber, especially if they are still sailed with leaves. A dramatic battle scene unfolds as they are flung around, desperately fighting to stay rooted in the ground, but many an over-stretched birch will lose this battle; the veteran oaks shrug disdainfully and discard a limb or two. Many of the felled trees survive, keeping a toehold in the earth. With most of the roots exposed to the air, the tree remains defiant, with the horizontal trunks sending up vertical shoots of recovery. The bowl ripped open at the base of the root plate fills with water, creating a temporary home for a host of aquatic invertebrates. The sudden space lets in light, and the former dappled sunlight becomes a cascade. Saplings reach up to take the place of the fallen and the newly formed glades are graced with woodland flowers. The exposed wounds on the injured survivors provide crevices for nesting birds, a roost for bats, an avenue for insects to creep along and fungus spores to settle into.   

Whilst standing at my kitchen window shortly after New Year, I watched my garden furniture take flight; I winced at the inevitable damage as a rattan-style table and six chairs were taken into violent custody by Gerrit, or was it Henk? After each storm, trees must be cleared from roads, tiles replaced on roofs, children’s trampolines returned to neighbours and, of course, insurance companies need to hike-up their premiums. I can’t speak for Mother Nature, but I don’t think she views storms as causing damage – more habitat creation and opportunity – wildlife can thrive in the mess of a good shake-up.  

Potter Heigham (c) Adam Pimble

Woodland after a storm (c) Robert Morgan

When a cold front does battle for superiority with warm air it is our shoreline that is battered the most. Immense bowling waves, drawn up by low pressure then excited by high winds, crash into banks of shingle, shifting thousands of tons of it. Sand and shingle banks are pushed and pulled, often being swept away and reformed elsewhere. This creates new nesting sites for ringed plover and oystercatcher, and fresh territory ideal for pioneering coastal plants to colonise. The newly formed shoals and sandbars may see terns settle to breed.  

Equally, as we have found with climate change, a storm hitting at an unexpected time can see an entire colony of eggs and chicks washed out to sea.  Soon after the storm has abated, mud brown rivers swollen with heavy rain will course at speed to the coast. Here and there they will burst out into fields, the former flood plains that our rivers occupied for thousands of years, before being yoked behind earthwork banks. This natural flooding provides a deposit of rich dark silt full of a multitude of seeds from up-stream, and as the river draws-back in springtime, the splashy pools left behind form ideal habitat for countless insects and the birds that feed on them. Debris is cleared from one spot and built up at another and large bankside alders, felled with a crash, will expose massive root plates that will tempt nesting kingfishers come April.   

The question now is: How are we going to manage increasing storm events in Britain? It is inevitable, and understandable, that there will be calls for bigger and better flood defence; but even the Thames flood barrier will soon be obsolete, so is this the long-term answer? Climate change in the UK should prompt us to work with nature, not against it. The straightening and banking of rivers doesn’t appear to be working. Native tree re-foresting in our uplands, naturalising river flow and even, in a rather small but enchanting way, the introduction of beavers can be part of the answer. Norfolk Wildlife Trust is commencing peatland restoration work at our Roydon Common reserve, as peat acts like a great sponge, it is also fantastic for biodiversity and acts as a carbon sink. This is also true of the reedbed creation projects we are carrying out in the Norfolk Broads. Completion of the ‘New Cut’ at our Cley and Salthouse reserve means we can drain-off seawater more quickly after inundation from a significant storm event.  

There is a lot for individuals, organisations such as NWT and governmental bodies to consider. In future I shall be sitting in my kitchen enjoying the tempest’s temper play-out, satisfied that I have stacked and stored-away my garden furniture well before October!  

Header image: RWST

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