After the storm

Have a read of the various NNR blogs this week and you’ll notice a recurring theme, with Storm Arwen having wrought chaos and destruction throughout the length of eastern Scotland. I must admit that while writing the previous piece about weather-forecasting wildfowl, I couldn’t have foreseen the sheer violence of what lay ahead. Maybe the birds did, hence their southward exodus. But while the geese and swans were safely ensconced in East Anglia, indulging in some sugar-beet tops in the endless beet fields, we endured the roughest conditions since the ‘Michael Fish hurricane’ in 1987.

Storm ahoy

A wind speed of 102 mph was reported from Strichen, about eight miles inland from the coast to the north of Forvie. Along the exposed east coast, things weren’t any better. While our neighbours’ sheds, wheelie-bins and bits of their house roofs were disappearing into the North Sea, we huddled around the stove and the paraffin lamps at home, dreading what we’d find on the Grampian NNRs when the storm finally abated. Reports from around the region indicated widespread devastation. We feared the worst.

Patrick made it out to Forvie on the Sunday, and reported a handful of damaged trees at Waterside Wood – phew, this didn’t sound too bad! However, with roads inland being blocked by fallen trees, and by the snow and ice that soon followed, no staff made it to Muir of Dinnet over the weekend following the storm. As a result, our plans for the Monday were torn up, and we headed to Dinnet as a team, tooled up with chainsaws and winches, expecting a scene of apocalyptic destruction. Thankfully this wasn’t the case, with just a few birches having succumbed and needing cut off the paths. This was a far better result – and an easier day’s work – than we’d all predicted.

Birches on the track at Muir of Dinnet NNR

Tuesday, then, gave us the opportunity to inspect the damage at Forvie more closely. As Patrick had noted, there were a handful of trees down or damaged near the main track onto the Reserve. A Sycamore with a shattered trunk, hung up in the neighbouring trees. A Sitka spruce with its crown snapped out, hanging precariously at a jaunty angle. Another big Sycamore – a ‘double-stemmer’ – with one half severed and on the ground, the other half broken yet still attached, once again hung up in its neighbours’ crowns. A little further up the slope, six more Sitkas and a further two Sycamores all tipped over, root plates out of the ground, tangled up with each other. Deal with that lot then.

So, plans were hatched, equipment sourced and help summoned. The first two of our volunteers to pick up the phone were, completely co-incidentally, Messrs Wood and Woods; you really couldn’t have made it up. But along with Mark and I, it gave us a team – chainsaw operator, winchman and two bankspeople. So we bashed on and got most of the individual trees safely felled and cleared on the Wednesday, leaving just the big cluster of trees ‘up the hill’ to deal with on the Thursday.

A snapped-out Sycamore with winch attached, ready for cutting
Safely cut and winched down – just the dismantling left to do

Meanwhile, over at Waulkmill bird hide, a little Crack Willow had done what Crack Willows do best: half-snapped and landed on the roof of the hide.

That shouldn’t be on that roof
Cutting out

Thankfully we also had Catriona on site on Thursday, sharing with me the chainsawing duties, and along with Mark we spent all the available daylight making the trees safe. Some came relatively quietly, but one big spruce in particular fought us every inch of the way. This one tree took more than two hours of hard labour, winching and cutting, before it lay safely grounded and sectioned. At one point it even overloaded the five-ton winch, causing the shear pin to blow (this is a safety device that is designed to ‘fail safe’, before any other components of the winching system become dangerously over-strained). But as I’ve said before, Mark clearly doesn’t know his own strength.

Cutting a fallen spruce off its root plate
First one down and partly cleared
Sycamore over on its root plate
All cleared up

To be honest, we got off very lightly at Forvie compared with other places nearby. Waterside Wood lies on the leeward side of the hill, after all. The plantation on the windward side of the same hill, just half a mile away on our neighbour’s land, was devastated. As I keep saying throughout these pages, the direction of the wind dictates everything here!

Nearing the end of a long day

As the daylight began to fail on Thursday, and we packed up the last of the gear and began to think of home and a hot bath, there appeared a little natural light relief. A Robin hopped around the churned-up woodland floor, where the furrows created by our winching activities had unearthed a treasure-trove of invertebrates. Then, as light and fleeting as a falling autumn leaf, a Goldcrest flicked through the prostrate twigs of the stricken, now-dismantled trees.

A cheeky Robin, on the lookout for a free meal
Goldcrest – five grams of restless energy

How these tiny waifs got by in the storm is anyone’s guess. But here was vibrant life among the debris and destruction: the gentle side of nature after the violence of the storm.