Fifteen million trees were torn down by the Great Storm of 1987, and in our panic to restore England’s landscape in the aftermath, we succeeded only in creating more chaos. Twenty years on, nature has proved it can heal itself without the help of mankind. So what lessons can we learn from our land’s innate wisdom?
The important thing to remember is that order in nature is not the same as order in the human mind, which has an exaggerated respect for tidiness.
“If you want a woodland in Britain,” says Peter Creasey, “you don’t have to plant trees. You just have to sit back and wait.” The great mistake, typical of people in crisis, is to think that something has to be done. Across the raw skin of southern England in 1987, there was a rush to salve the wounds. In many cases it was the worst kind of first aid, making the patient worse rather than better.
“Most of the planting that was done,” says Peter Creasey, “has been overwhelmed by trees just seeding themselves naturally.” It is this process of force majeure that has brought the change of policy — in effect, a willing surrender to a needless enemy. Instead of nurturing the planted beeches, says Creasey, “we decided to let natural succession take place. It happens in a natural sequence. First you get pioneer trees like birch and, to a certain extent, ash. The birch will last for about 60-odd years and then will be overtopped by the longer-lived trees like oak and beech. Eventually you get a natural broad-leaved mixed woodland, but it does take time and patience.”
In nature there is no such thing as waste. Life likes nothing better than death. “Some experts reckon,” says Creasey, “that if you want an ecologically healthy woodland, then 50-60% of the timber should be dead or dying.”
This is not as morbid as it sounds. “An oak, for instance, will take 200 years to reach anything like maturity. Then it will sit for 1,200 years being mature; then it will spend another 200 or 300 years slowly dying. Its time-scale is very different to ours.”
You see the evidence wherever old hulks have been left. Woodpeckers feed on insect larvae in the dead timber; bats roost in it; stag beetles breed and joust like their mammalian namesakes; dormice — fastidiously intolerant of anything short of ecological perfection — move in with fixed, erotic intent.