October 2017 marks the 30th anniversary of the storm when hurricane-force winds felled hundreds of thousands of trees across southern England. Hundreds of mature trees on Chislehurst Commons were damaged or felled overnight. Most trees were still virtually in full leaf and therefore more vulnerable to wind damage than leafless trees would have been.
The storm was a tragedy for the ancient trees of Kew Gardens and the stately homes of Kent and Sussex, but in the main no great ecological damage was done. The storm was a natural event and had the effect of culling weak and senescent trees. In the immediate aftermath, the Commons Keepers spent the first two days cutting and clearing fallen timber which was blocking roads and main footpaths.
Wherever damaged or fallen trees were not hazardous or causing an obstruction, they were left. This was ecologically sound as it mimics what happens in nature. Some fallen trees had sufficient enough root plate left intact to survive and thrive. Others died and became substrates for a range of fungi and havens for all manner of small animals.
The impact of the storm on the Commons was not studied in any quantitative way, but a study was conducted for the National Trust in part of Petts Wood which is contiguous with the southern boundary of St Pauls Cray Common. The survey included all trees which had a girth of at least 160 mm at shoulder height. 30 per cent of trees were unscathed or nearly so. 27 per cent had fallen, the most vulnerable species being Sweet Chestnut and Birch. Many of the Commons trees were protected by virtue of the density of the woodlands, veteran trees shielding younger and smaller ones.
Although it was a night to remember, the storm’s long term legacy on the Commons is only slight.