I had been intending to write about something other than fallen trees in February. It seems that my life this winter has been dominated by the incessant storms and their consequences the fallen trees and the wet weather. It’s still happening! We’re told that this has all been caused by a wrinkle in the North Atlantic jetstream. Some wrinkle.
A few of the resulting storms have even been given names like the St Jude Storm, the Christmas Eve storm and the one two weeks ago which caused a lot of damage across the south of England and I’m calling the Valentine storm. I know that commuting to work can be a big problem in the South of England and the wrong type of leaves on the line is an excuse for train delays that we are all used to, but this time it was the wrong type of tree on the track.
It all started back in October with the ‘St Judes’ storm – which now pales almost into insignificance in comparison with the later arrivals, but it did have some powerful gusts which caused a lot of tree damage in small swathes where it moved through. The gusts have been features of these storms reaching twice the speed of the winds. This makes the damage quite unpredictable. All the trees you expect to fall don’t whilst the next study tree is ripped in two by the gust. There have also been a lot of trees falling because of the saturated ground and either the whole root plate lifts or the roots just snap and the tree falls.
These trees are a lot harder to deal with than those we fell intentionally as this snapped Birch shows very well. The violence of the force that snapped the tree causes a lot of shattering and tension in the branch wood all of which needs to be carefully released – it’s dangerous – and it’s still suspended in the air caught between more Birch trees. Not a simple job and it needs to be left until it can be completed safely but just to complicate matters it’s right across a Right of Way and next to a stream so access for machinery is complicated.
With over 100 trees down across the commons we can’t get to them all immediately and we have to prioritise our work. Clearing the roads is the first priority – though it is the most unpleasant of tasks as the hazard of fallen trees is compounded by the hazard of bizarre behaviour by other drivers.
You put up signs, vehicles with flashing lights and work on the road with a chainsaw and as soon as one carriageway is clear – they drive by at 50mph and only slow down to swear at you for holding them up. On Christmas Eve I was stuck clearing a birch top that had only blocked one side of the road, still windy and raining and cars speeding past wondering why I was bothering when I sensed a car stopping and I heard a voice say – I do like a man with a chainsaw! No it wasn’t yet more strange behaviour by drivers but a Police Landrover who blocked the road and got out to help me clear the branches. A rare treat indeed and thank you to those two West Sussex officers!
Unfortunately you don’t get to take photos in these circumstances – your mind is 100% engaged in dealing with the tree, the weather and the road conditions as safely as possible. I do wish that I had a photo of the situation that I found when I turned out at 7:45 on the morning after the Valentine Storm to clear the local main road. A two foot diameter oak tree had split at waist height and fallen totally blocking the road. But it was crowned by a modified 4×4, you know the type with the air intake so high above the vehicle that driver will need scuba gear! It was stuck on the trunk having tried to drive over it. It took three of us an hour to cut the 4×4 free and open one side of the road.
Luckily there are few trees that fall across the roads. The next priority is the network of Rights of Way that cross the commons and any trees that have not completely fallen and remain in a dangerous state – or both. This bridlepath leading onto the commons was completely blocked by several fallen trees some of which had fallen into other trees knocking them down like dominos and a couple more that were still suspended over the path. Another tricky job to clear – and one that needs to be completed safely both for us doing the job and for users of the path.
You might get the impression that all the trees on the commons have fallen over – but there are still tens of thousands more to go. The Birch in the picture look very pretty – but if you notice the spray (end of the branches) are all bending to the left you get a feel for the strength of the winds to which they are exposed.
All trees will fall over unless we cut them down first. It’s a natural process, the soil on the heathland is very poor and acidic, only a few inches in depth before you reach the natural bedrock sandstone so many trees are literally clinging on. As they reach old age they are stressed and succumb to disease and the next storm may bring them down. The fallen trees do represent an opportunity – we can use the wood as a zero carbon source of fuel and timber (for my polelathe), the trees will regenerate and before we know it there will another young crop of trees across the commons.
I’m off to work on a few more trees now – at least the firewood for next year is getting sorted early!