When a barrage of storms hit the UK in the winter of 2021-2022, Llandegla Forest in North Wales took a hammering: Now though, trees are being replanted and trail re-imagined
As a nation we’re obsessed with the weather. Which is odd as our weather can best be described as degrees of mild – Cool-mild, warm-mild, mild-mild – usually all in the same day. For the most part, Britain is averse to extremities. Not that that stops us tuning in to the weather on TV, downloading multiple apps to cross-reference forecasts, or talking about it at any opportunity. Like now, for instance.
For mountain bikers, a weather forecast is just as important as a map when planning a ride and deciding where to go and what to wear. Rain has us reaching for the waterproof jacket, freezing temperatures sees us packing an extra layer or two, and wind, well, wind often has us reaching for a magazine and another coffee.
A strong headwind is a cyclist’s nemesis. Its ability to sap your power, throw you off-line and make riding tricky, tiring, and in some cases downright dangerous, can’t be mitigated against with a change of clothes or a different set of tyres. A windy day can ruin a ride. It can also ruin trails. When a barrage of storms hit the UK last year, Llandegla Forest in North Wales took a series of blows that it’s still recovering from.
Badger and Jim
Badger and Jim are the owners of OnePlanet Adventure, who own and operate Llandegla’s visitor centre and the trails that are laced through the forest. Both are locals who have grown up with the forest on their doorstep and, like so much of the bike industry, they are riders first, businessmen second.
“We went to see a government business adviser to help us with a business plan for buying the trail centre, and when we told him what we wanted to do, he said, ‘Well that doesn’t sound like a good idea.’” recalls Jim.
They did it anyway, and 17 years later their gut instinct and hard graft have paid off. Llandegla is hugely popular. With a catchment area that covers much of the north west, it’s rare to see the visitor centre quiet, and come the weekend the trails are buzzing with riders.
Weather plays a big part in the way the centre operates. Snow can block the car park, ice can make the trails treacherous, rain can put riders off visiting. Some of that can be planned for, some of it worked around, but sometimes there’s nothing to do but stand back, wait and deal with the aftermath.
Jim said, ‘How bad is it Badge?’ – I just put my head in my hands.”
Between November 2021 and February 2022 the UK was hit by seven storms, with three of them occurring in just one week. The destruction was immense, and nowhere was it more obvious than in the country’s forests. From the east coast of Scotland to the south coast of England, trees were brought down on an unprecedented scale.
The prevailing winds at Llandegla’s visitor centre typically come from the west, but the storms came from the north northwest. Storm Arwen, the first of the seven storms, produced sustained gusts of 90 mph, but only brought a few trees down. Storm Franklin, the last of the storms, hammered Llandegla Forest.
Badger remembers the day well. “I spent a day looking at where all the trees had come down. I got back to the centre and Jim said, ‘How bad is it Badge?’. I just put my head in my hands.”
Trees blocked the trails, but they’d also fallen on the forest roads. Without clearing the roads they wouldn’t be able to clear the trails, and as the roads are needed for emergency access, they had to be reopened first.
Badger’s initial estimate put the reopening of the trails in terms of months. “I went home and said to myself, ‘no, we’re not having that’”. With a lot of hard work and the help of some talented people, the team at OnePlanet had the majority of trails ready to ride for the weekend. Despite that initial quick turn around, it’s been over a year since storm Franklin, and there are still over 50 trees down in one area.
The forest was planted in 1972 as a source of wood for a local paper mill. Today the wood is mostly used for chipboard and building supplies. We bounce up the fireroad in Badger’s pickup truck, past the works site, piles of timber and harvesters, busy turning trees into stacked logs. Even these stacks were affected by the storms. Demand for timber of a particular size increased after the storms as so many fence panels needed to be replaced.
It wasn’t just man-made boundaries that collapsed in the storms. Badger points out the forest’s green edges. Trees in the middle of the forest will lose their lower branches and only have leaves or needles on the top, trees on the edges of forests exposed to light develop branches from top to bottom – hence the green edge. These trees are used to taking the brunt of the wind, but only from a certain direction. When the winds came in at a different angle it bowled this green edge over, exposing weaker trees that are now vulnerable to further strong winds.
We drive up to one of the gullies that now resembles a giant game of pick-up-sticks or Kerplunk, with trees lying across trees. Many of them are snapped off at the two metre mark, looking like broken matchsticks. This is the point where they have run out of flex in the wind, and shattered.
Just off the forest road we scramble around the brash and into the chaos and carnage. It’s still just about possible to make out the trail that ran through this bit of woodland, but it’s going to be a long time before it’s reopened. Part of the issue is the number of bent and bowed trees. Despite lying on the floor with no further to fall, many are under huge amounts of tension with the potential to flick back with incredible force. This makes removal tricky, especially on a steep slope. Trees that are only being held up by their neighbours, hanging perilously over the trail, also pose a threat. It’s a technical challenge to unpick the tangle of timber, and in some places it’s too difficult or costly to do the job safely, so the area is left.
Acts of God
The forest itself is owned by the Church of England, and managed by an asset management company, with health and safety and harvesting then sub-contracted to other firms. Overseeing all this is Natural Resources Wales. Badger explains that if a single random tree drops onto the middle of a trail it doesn’t interest the forest owners, as there’s no real money to be made from it. In this case Badger can fire up the chainsaw and quickly clear the trail.
If the trees fall over and damage the trail then it’s, appropriately, an act of God
But, if an acre of trees come down then there’s a significant amount of money tied up in that crop, and they will need to be extracted carefully. If the trails are damaged during the extraction then OnePlanet will receive compensation, but if the trees fall over and damage the trail then it’s, appropriately, an act of God.
With so many layers of administration involved, removing fallen trees is not always a quick or straightforward task, and it usually takes 12 weeks for a felling licence to come through. With the café, bike shop and workshop all reliant on the trails being open for visitors, and the trails reliant on that income to be maintained, there’s an urgency to getting the network open again.
Weather happens and Badger remains pragmatic about the challenges they’ve faced in the last year. “You never know when the trees will fall, or how much damage they might cause, but that’s life. We always knew trees would fall over and trails would be blocked. It might feel like the end of the world at the time, but it’s part of what we set out to do. It’s nature, you can’t expect it not to happen.”
The forest road stops where the trails start their descent at the Snowdon View trailhead. Today Snowdon’s summit is hiding above the clouds, its flanks just about visible and, aptly, covered in snow. Llandegla’s altitude is deceiving. Some of the trails here are at 500m, half the height of Snowdon. Badger says that makes them the highest trail centre in the UK. This often means that while Llandegla is being battered by bad weather it can be fine a few miles away, to the point that they had riders turning up thinking the storm damage couldn’t have been that bad. “We had people on the trails trying to clamber over fallen trees, despite us saying the trails were closed.”
To most visitors there’s no visible difference between the damage caused by the storms and that of the harvesters. A tree-packed hillside turned into a grey wasteland makes for an uncomfortable scene. Badger is pragmatic about this. “A lot of the romanticism is, ‘wouldn’t it just be lovely if the forest was left as it is’, but in reality the people who own the forest are in the business of growing and selling wood.”
Mountain biking is first and foremost an experience, and the places we ride are part of that experience. Riders have often retreated to the trees to help escape from the elements and build trails in peace, but forests have also helped with mental escapism, providing a break from the buffeting of everyday life. Forest bathing, the act of spending time in a forest to find inner-calm, is now all the rage, but it’s something mountain bikers have been aware of since the beginning of the sport. It’s this intimate relationship with woodland that makes it particularly jarring when forests are cut down, either for harvesting or to make the trail passable. Some trails are defined by trees; taking them away changes the feel of the trail, if not the trail itself.
Like the weather and seasons, the life of the forest has a natural cycle. Mitigating against future damage from storms involves embracing this. “We have to allow the cycle to take place. We’re a mature forest. You might see a harvester looking like it’s devastating the woodland but that is mitigating the risk. Jim has a saying, trees only fall once.” This is very true, and it’s only mature trees that fall, younger trees are small and flexible enough to bend with the wind. Replanting trees is part of this cycle, over time changing the landscape again, giving the trail back its character as well as providing shelter for riders.
The winds of change are also at work on the trails as well as the trees, and Llandegla is expanding its offering. Alongside the familiar limestone trails are some bike park style trails, like From Dusk To Dawn, with its big swooping berms and floodlighting, set in amongst a cleared hillside. There are also some fresh hand-cut trails, built in response to the desire for trails with a more natural feel.
The black, sinuous lines that weave down the hill are very different from what you’d expect to find at a trail centre. These trails are gated, and in bad weather they’ll be closed off to help reduce erosion. If it hadn’t been for the storms they’d be further along with building new trails, but fixing the existing trails damaged by fallen trees has been the priority, and tied up both money and time as a result.
Under its agreement with the forest’s owners, OnePlanet can build up to 1.5km of new trails a year. But, if building the trail requires trees being cut down, then those trees need to be purchased, adding to the cost of the trail. Plans for the future of the trail network are dictated by what is due to be harvested, with wind blown areas throwing up unexpected opportunities as well as problems. Building a new trail in a recently cleared area is a lot cheaper than waiting five years, when the trees have regrown and become expensive to buy.
As we walk back to the pickup, Badger confesses that despite spending most of his days surrounded by them, he’s never cut down a living tree. This doesn’t seem surprising. Listening to him talk about trees he sounds more like a shepherd than a forester, as concerned about the individual as the herd. As riders it’s sometimes hard to see the trees for the forest, and even then, it’s only when the familiar backdrop to our riding is gone that we realise how much it was a part of the ride itself. But, as trees are replanted and regrown, and trails are rebuilt and re-imagined, it’s easier to see that storms, and the calm that follows them, are all part of the cycle.