Storm Arwen and its devastating winds will live long in the memory. But while many of us were taking cover, Nick Dearden and his Langley Arb team were answering a call for help from more than 560 miles away. Here he looks back on the efforts to restore power to homes and clear Aberdeenshire’s villages. 

IT’S nearly two months after the worst storm in decades hits the UK and its forests, sending 100 mph winds through them like a particularly furious bulldozer, when Nick Dearden hears a fact that makes him stand up and take notice. “How much?” he asks, before being told again of the early estimates that 20 per cent of Scotland’s annual timber harvest was blown over during November’s Storm Arwen. “Wow!” He takes a moment to chew on the startling figure. “That’s interesting.” 

‘Interesting’ is one word for it. ‘Devastating’ is another and it’s the one that comes up frequently when Nick, managing director of Southampton-based Langley Arb, recounts a three-week spell of 15-hour days, the villages of Aberdeenshire, and more trees than anyone could possibly count after the firm answered the call to help. In many ways, it was an arborist’s dream. 

READ MORE: Storm Arwen: Mairi McAllan warns Scotland's forests will take 'centuries' to recover

By this point most readers will know the Storm Arwen tale, but let’s recap. On Friday, November 26, wind, rain and sleet straight out of the Old Testament battered large swathes of the UK. Trees fell, at least three lives were lost, and even the filming of I’m a Celebrity ...Get Me Out of Here! ground to a halt as the country took cover until the worst of it was over. 

Forestry Journal: It didn’t take long for the devastation to become clear It didn’t take long for the devastation to become clear

In the days that followed, authorities scrambled to pick up the pieces. While trying to figure out just how bad it had all been – and even now no one is really too sure – many of the nation’s woodlands were shut to the public and more than 200,000 homes were left without power (some didn’t get it back for a fortnight). 

This is where Langley Arb comes in. With the storms still raging overhead, Nick got a call the next day from contractor Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks and soon sprung into action. 

“The storm happened on the Friday and we got the call at about 2 pm on the Saturday and were told we had a few hours to get packed and ready,” he says. “So, we just threw some stuff together for like three days or something and were then on the road by 5pm – we ended up being there for three weeks!” 

With a team of 13 – it later became 15 with the addition of two others shortly after they’d arrived – on the road that same afternoon, it didn’t take long for them to realise just how bad things were going to be. 

“It was on the way up there. We have an app, which lets us monitor electrical faults. Quite often a bad one could be 50 to 100 faults but this one was 150 and some of them were really bunched together, with 23 faults in a small area. That’s really unusual. 

“We knew it was special. We travelled up and stayed in Gretna Green for the night but after we left there we started to hit more and more snow. We still weren’t expecting to see what we did. 

Forestry Journal: The ruined terrain also posed a challenge. The ruined terrain also posed a challenge.

“Some of it had been cleaned up the night before, but when we got to Aberdeen it was still clear how bad it had been. We met our contractor and spoke to him and he told us whole parts of the network were down. 

“That’s when we realised it wasn’t just a few trees on the road between poles, but it was like a forest had fallen down between them.” 

After getting to grips with the area and the task at hand, it also became clear this wasn’t going to be just a three-day stay. The size of the job was ‘enormous’. The east coast of Scotland, like Dumfries and Galloway, had already been singled out as one of the worst-affected areas north of the Border. Even now, many of Aberdeenshire’s woodlands remain inaccessible and could be so for some time. 

But Nick and the team had a problem: they’d only packed for a short stay. 

Forestry Journal: Returning power to thousands of homes was the immediate concern. Returning power to thousands of homes was the immediate concern.

“We were obviously only expecting to be up there for a short time, so I think on the third day we had to go out and do a Tesco shop just to get some stuff, like clothing.” 

As of this month, the clean-up of Storm Arwen is still underway. Forestry England, Scottish Forestry, Confor, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), and many, many others are working flat out to assess the situation. A new mapping tool is being used for the first time to create a clearer picture, but one thing is already for sure: it’s going to take some time to get things back to normal, if they ever will be again. 

Scotland’s environment minister Mairi McAllan has already suggested it could be ‘centuries’ before the country’s woodlands recover and Nick and the team saw for themselves how devastating it had all been to the villages of Aberdeenshire.  

“We were working around five miles in and around Aberdeen. It was bad. The process of removing it, salvaging it, and moving the timber is so stark. 

“There were a lot of people up there and we were dealing with the electrical side of things. 

“It was three weeks and working a minimum of between 7 am and 10 pm at night. We’d get a call in the morning to head to a depot where we’d then bring together a team to go to the job. 

“It’s a team effort. As we’re clearing the trees off the lines, Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks are putting the lines back up or new powerline poles. It’s such a network of moving parts across the job.

“Everyone was so appreciative of what we were doing and could see that we were still out late at night working away. The Scottish people were amazing and we are so thankful for the warm welcome.

“They made difficult and sometimes challenging situations very much easier with their smiley faces, kindness, positive feedback and welcoming attitude and left us feeling proud to have been part of their journey.” 

Forestry Journal:  Windblown trees littered the landscape in the aftermath of Storm Arwen. Windblown trees littered the landscape in the aftermath of Storm Arwen.

One conversation in particular stands out. It was towards the end of Langley Arb’s time in Aberdeenshire when Nick and some of the crew came across a couple living in a small, rural house. Little did they know they’d stumbled upon someone who was there when the terrible storms of the 1950s – widely regarded as the worst of the last century – hit. 

“He told us that back then he was just 15 and he was working for the Forestry Commission. 

“He said it was the worst he had seen since then. We’ve done a lot of jobs that have been bad in the past but nothing up there with the devastation that we saw.” 

For Nick and the Langley Arb team, it was an experience that will live long in the memory. Day-to-day the firm carries out domestic work, contract work, and tasks on behalf of Forestry England, but the sheer scale of Arwen was like nothing else. 

Nick’s been in the industry for a quarter of a century and Langley Arb’s been going for 13 years, but the trip to Aberdeenshire will always be a highlight. 

“It was the biggest we have ever done. It was like a cyclone had blown through the area. Trees were crossing over each other, they were over walls, and properties. 

“While it was awful what happened, it was the best thing. It’s why we do the job that we do.”

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