Celebrating the life of Oliver Rackham

Ancient beech tree
Oliver Rackham increased scientific understanding of woodland and the landscape and his work attracted a wide following. (Photo: V Cooper/WTML)

The investigative genius of Oliver Rackham, his insights and knowledge of the British Countryside shaped the way a generation viewed and thought about the landscape.

Oliver’s work has had a profound influence on our understanding of trees and woodland as places where history and ecology, human influence and natural forces have combined and interacted to create complex and continuously fascinating places.

Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape published in in 1976 came just four years after the founding of the Woodland Trust. At the time ancient trees and ancient woodland were under great threat of loss and Oliver Rackham’s prognosis of the future was bleak.

His later edition was able to report a more hopeful outlook, following a dramatic change in fortunes for ancient woodland in the 1980s. However more recently, in a paper in the New Phytologist (PDF, 0.2MB) in 2008, entitled ‘Ancient woodland: modern threats’, in what proved to be a prescient statement just a few years before the emergence of ash dieback and other tree pathogens in Britain, Oliver Rackham said…

”It is hardly possible to pick out one threat as more serious than another. However, the most widespread threat in the foreseeable future is probably the spread of pathogens”.

An inspiration 

From his earliest writing, Oliver Rackham was an exceptional voice and guide to the different elements of the natural landscape. Ancient trees were no exception, as he was quick to point out that “trees of more than 250 year’s growth are not normally found in woods,” even ancient woods, but more likely in wood pastures, parkland or parks and old hedges.

He has written “ A 500 year old oak, especially one that that has been pollarded, is a whole ecosystem of such creatures for which ten thousand oaks that are only 200 years old are no use at all”.

Oliver opened our eyes to ancient trees; their value for biodiversity, our cultural and landscape heritage and their sheer beauty. He was clearly aware of the significance of the UK: “Great and ancient trees, although they occur sparingly throughout Europe, are a speciality of [the UK].”

Hunting for ancient trees

He has inspired many to take up the mantle on behalf of these trees and amongst them the citizens who have recorded them on the Ancient Tree Inventory “If we find so many without especially looking for them, how many more are there to be discovered by careful investigation”. We now have more than 140,000 ancient and other special tree records with which to honour his name.

Oliver Rackham led by example; he never tired of long days out in the field, investigating new sites and revisiting old. After a day on site, he would spend his evenings cross-checking notes, revisiting maps and viewing other sources of information.

He never relied on assumptions, always building and developing his own understanding further, kindly including others along the way. We are honoured to have received visits by Oliver to a number of Woodand Trust sites, such a Glen Finglas and Wentwood, and of course we have always valued his contributions enormously.

The loss of Oliver Rackham will be a great void in the world of conservation of trees and woodland; we are deeply grateful for his legacy and remember him fondly as a generous teacher, friend and leader.

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