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Department of Plant Sciences

Oliver Rackham - champion of woodlands

Professor Oliver Rackham, who died on 12 February, was known around the world for his publications in historical ecology. His impact was not only on the scholarly community, but also on members of the public who appreciated his clear lively writing style, humour and original approach to the history of woodlands and of the countryside as a whole. He inspired large numbers of people of all ages concerned with conservation of wildlife, and he brought about big changes in the attitudes of those managing woodlands. He had a gift for languages and a truly encyclopaedic knowledge not only of plants, vegetation and the various kinds of evidence about the history of woodlands and the countryside (pollen analysis, earthworks and artefacts, ancient manuscripts) but also of carpentry and the work of the silversmith.

Oliver gave outstanding service to his College in Cambridge, Corpus Christi, and took on important roles in the University as a Proctor, and as a member of the Board of Scrutiny. He spent most of his career as an independent researcher, but was made an Honorary Professor in Historical Ecology in 2006 in the Department of Plant Sciences.

It is not well known that he came to Cambridge as an undergraduate expecting to specialise in physics, but when he arrived in Corpus Christi College from Norwich School in 1958 his mentor advised broadening his studies by taking on a biological subject. He chose botany and quickly proved his outstanding ability coupled with an insatiable curiosity, winning the Frank Smart Prize in Botany in 1960. Most of the many who admire his later writings in historical ecology have no idea that he performed outstanding research in plant physiology while working for his PhD – many years ahead of the field. 

Oliver investigated the limits to the rate of photosynthesis in the leaves of plants, and thus ultimately the limits to the rate of growth.  Simple models were then being used to explain the way that the stomatal pores acted as variable valves to control carbon dioxide uptake and water loss from leaves. He adopted the view that (1) an equivalent resistance would also lie internally, within the spongy mesophyll tissues, which limit the diffusion of carbon dioxide through cell walls and cell membranes to the primary enzyme of carbon fixation within the chloroplast and (2) that the limited capacity of that enzyme created another ‘resistance’. The importance of Oliver’s key paper, published in 1966, was established 40 years later when the subject came to the forefront in the study of factors limiting leaf photosynthesis and crop productivity. Now technically complicated approaches and modelling are used and hotly debated.

In 1964 Oliver was made a Fellow of Corpus Christi College and a University Demonstrator in Botany, a post that involved teaching in both physiology and ecology. From 1968 to 1972 he worked at the Plant Breeding Institute on the impact of drought on the growth of barley, but began in his spare time to make the studies for which he is so widely known. In 1972 he became an independent researcher and remained that for the rest of his career.  

His first book Hayley Wood, its History and Ecology was published in 1975. It not only provided a comprehensive and insightful account of the wood in its present state, but opened our eyes to what could be learned from the 1251 manuscript called the Coucher Book of Ely (made for the then owner, the Bishop). Oliver recognised that surprisingly the outline of the wooded area had been largely consistent since medieval times, and also the extent  to which the woodland had been managed for wood products and animal husbandry (coppicing and pannage). Most ecologists couldn’t read the manuscript (in Latin), still less learn from it.

Oliver’s great range of skills, already clear in that first book, were displayed on a monumental scale in his Ancient Woodland its history, vegetation and use in England (1980, much enlarged in the 2nd edition of 2003). This book resulted from studies across the whole of SE England based on medieval manuscripts and later maps plus critical observations of his own on the current extent and state of the woods – their soils and plant cover, their management, and banks and ditches, and discussed a huge amount of original information and many new insights. It provided a critical analysis of the many kinds of evidence on woodland history, illustrated for specific woods for each of which he provided his own maps showing their historical development.

His writings began to influence present-day woodland management, and he became increasingly involved in conservation of woodland more generally. He waged an eventually successful campaign against coniferization of woodlands by the Forest Commission. He emphasized the serious threat from the excessively large populations of deer in most of them. He warned of the dangers of pests and diseases being moved freely around the world, and railed against the ignorant managers planting trees and shrubs purporting to be native species and subspecies but were actually ‘look alikes’ from abroad.

In History of the Countryside (1986) he took on a wider range of subjects, and opened readers’ eyes into feudal society and the extent that our countryside has been managed for the past millennium, and particularly the use of woodlands to provide materials for housing, warfare and latterly heavy industry.

In The Last Forest.The Story of Hatfield Forest (1989) he used the records for this forest in northern Essex to show that a whole of raft of widely accepted ideas about the history of forests in Britain “had no connection with real world”.

Oliver broadened the geographical extent of his work to the Mediterranean Basin through a study on Crete with the archaeologist Jennifer Moody, and more widely with the geographer A T Grove. The Making of the Cretan Landscape (1996) was remarkable for its melding of ecology and archaeology, while The Nature of Mediterranean Europe – an Ecological History (2001) presented many new observations and new ways of interpreting the landscape. In 2008, he led a successful campaign against development of the Touplou Peninsula in Crete. His knowledge and understanding were further increased during visits made by invitation to the USA, Japan and Australia.

Oliver’s last massive volume called simply Woodlands (2006) was the 100th volume in the New Naturalist series, and brought together all his many interests in the subject. Very recently, in 2014, he published The Ash Tree as a tribute to one of the nation’s favourite trees, currently under threat from the fungus Chalara.

He was appointed OBE in 1998, DUniv of the University of Essex in 2000, FBA in 2002, Master of Corpus Christi College for 2007-08, and an Honorary Member by the British Ecological Society in 2009.

Peter Grubb
17 February 2015