Professor Oliver Rackham: Botanist and expert on historic trees and ancient woodland whose work inspired a generation of conservationists

He was the first to explore woods from a variety of different perspectives

Peter Marren
Friday 27 February 2015 20:53 GMT
Oliver Rackham has died aged 75.
Oliver Rackham has died aged 75. (Bridget Smith)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Oliver Rackham was our foremost scholar of historic trees and ancient woodlands, widely known from a succession of brilliantly readable books.

He was the first to explore woods from a variety of different perspectives – ecology, archaeology, timbers, place-names, manuscript records – in order to recreate a wood’s history and what he called the wood’s genius loci. Rackham showed us that every wood is different and that they retain natural features despite centuries of use.

His methods inspired an entire generation of scholars and conservationists, both at home and abroad, to take up the study of woodland. It is at least partly through his work that ancient woodlands are now among the best protected features of the natural landscape. When he set out, in the late 1960s, that seemed a very unlikely outcome.

Rackham’s unique style is exemplified by his History of the Countryside, which became a surprise best-seller and won the Angel Literary Award in 1986. The book was a shatterer of time-honoured myths. In crisp, quirky, often humorous, everyday language, Rackham explored how the countryside was formed by the interplay of man and nature over time. The countryside was not remade in the 18th and 19th centuries as many believed. He made the overlooked point that every square inch of Britain has been owned by somebody, or has been set aside for communal use, since the Iron Age. In historical times England was never covered in vast forests. It is and always was a country of small woods and fields. Where it has not vanished under suburbs or the plough, Henry VIII would recognise the countryside of today; so, in all probability, would Julius Caesar.

Rackham also reminded foresters that trees do not necessarily die when cut down. Until recent times most woods were cut over time and again to produce not timber but what he called underwood, useful small-bore wood that could be turned into faggots, poles and hurdle fences or firewood. So long as grazing animals were kept out, new shoots would appear from the stump and grow rapidly in a process Rackham called “the constant spring”. Mass tree-planting, he wrote, ‘is not conservation but an admission that conservation has failed’.

He reminded those keen to replant woods after the gale of 1987 that trees are good at replanting themselves. Treat trees as living things, he begged, and not “as gateposts with leaves”. The greatest threat came not from urban development (suburban woods are often well cared-for) but from the explosion in numbers of browsing deer and the alarming increase in tree diseases caused by global trade.

In the field he was memorable not only as a generous and inspiring teacher but also for his eccentricities. From the bright red socks slipped into sandals to his unruly hair (and latterly a white beard) crowned by a broad-brimmed hat, Rackham was unmistakable. He threw off his natural shyness in the right company, becoming fluent, vivacious and with his own cheeky humour. His powers of concentration, allied to an astounding memory for detail, enabled him to master a new language within weeks or even days. It also sometimes made him oblivious. Once he invited friends for a meal which, after he had disappeared into the kitchen, failed to arrive. After half an hour they found the great woodland historian in a world of his own, dissecting a piece of ancient timber in the sink, the meal forgotten.

Oliver Rackham was born in a country town in Suffolk but soon moved to Norwich, where his father Geoffrey worked in a bank. He encouraged Oliver’s love of landscape, especially on a walking tour of the Alps (his mother, Norah, died when he was a boy). Rackham won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he graduated with a First in Natural Sciences. His PhD dissertation was on tree physiology: ‘transpiration, assimilation and the aerial environment’. He remained at Cambridge, firstly as a Demonstrator in botany then as a researcher in the Plant Breeding Institute followed by the Department of Geography. He was given an honorary professorship in Historical Ecology in 2010.

Rackham was lucky to find himself among a brilliant postwar generation of botanists, many of whom became friends and mentors, among them David Coombe, who encouraged his interest in historical ecology. Other influences included his young supervisor, Peter Grubb, Max Walters, who introduced him to the Mediterranean, and John Rishbeth, who gave him a lifelong interest in plant pathology. He was also a close friend of Colin and Susan Ransom. The former represented Essex in the Nature Conservancy, and it was at their hospitable home that he wrote much of his magnum opus, Ancient Woodland (1980).

At Corpus Christi, Rackham became an institution. He acted as keeper of the college records and of its silver (on which he wrote a gorgeously illustrated book) and was, for a year, interim Master. He will long be remembered there for his animated and entertaining readings from the Old Testament and his eccentric pronunciation of Latin when saying grace. Rackham was a quietly devoted Anglican, and also developed an interest in the Orthodox Church during three visits with Philip Oswald to the religious communities of Mount Athos.

Rackham’s woodland studies began in Cambridgeshire, where they resulted in his first book, Hayley Wood (1975), an object lesson in the Rackham method. They soon broadened out into Essex, then the rest of Britain, to Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, and to Texas, Australia, Ethiopia and Japan. His many field visits to Crete – his idea of heaven on earth – with the US archaeologist Jennifer Moody, resulted in another seminal book, The Making of the Cretan Landscape, in which they set out to prove that the island was not a “degraded landscape” but one that would be instantly recognisable to the Ancient Greeks. His last book, The Ash Tree (2014), paid tribute to a common but valuable tree threatened with disease. His response to the Government’s belated and futile attempt to prevent ash-dieback was: “I told you so”. Some lessons seem hard to learn.

Oliver Rackham, botanist, geographer, historian and scholar: born Bungay, Suffolk 17 October 1939; OBE 1998; died Cambridge 12 February 2015.

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