My intention had been for my next blog post to be a piece on an fascinating little insect, but that can wait because instead this post will be about one of the people who inspired me to get deeper into ecology.
Professor Oliver Rackham was one of my favourite lecturers and a scientist I truly admired. His lectures didn’t stick to any of the principles of pedagogy, but they were some of the most inspirational I have ever attended. He talked about his work, his books, about woodlands and their history and ecology, and I just sat enthralled. The lectures seemed to end all too quickly. Sadly, I learned today that Professor Rackham has passed away, so instead this entry will be a tribute to the work he did and the effect it had on me.
Oliver Rackham was one of the most passionate scholars of historical ecology in the British Isles (and Crete) and in particular, one of the greatest lovers of woodlands. The time he spent observing, studying and recording the ecology of various ancient woodlands around and near Cambridgeshire have taught us so much about the importance and irreplacability of ancient woodlands and the interactions between the plants and ecosystems in them. His ability to disentangle the complex and ancient relationship between the people of the British Isles and the trees, woodlands and forests – where it was to some extent mutualistic, and where it’s been less so – was a wonderful contribution to our understanding of woodland management (certainly for me!).
He showed me what it was to really love your area of work. I will never forget a slide show he put up for us: every year, for the past 25 years, he’d gone to the exact same spot in one of his most beloved woods, and taken a photograph. And then he assembled them into a slide show, so we got to watch the passage of time in that piece of woodland and how it changed over the years, while still retaining the same trees at the heart of it. I remember the slide from 1988, after the great storms of 1987 – he pointed out the trees that had been lost and it seemed to me that he genuinely mourned the loss of each one. It’s part of nature, and ecologically, a fallen tree is a chance for many other species of plant and insect to move in, but a great, ancient tree is still something that’s hard to replace these days.
He showed me what it was to care about a habitat in all its complexity, and the difference the right sort of management could make. He showed me that ancient woodland is one of our most magnificent and precious resources, and what we destroy now cannot be replaced just by planting new trees elsewhere. An ancient woodland has so much going on – as I’ve found out later on when chasing after honeysuckle whitefly (Aleyrodes lonicerae) and their predators and parasitoids1 – even ancient woodland remnants in business parks and the like are still surprisingly more interesting than some secondary woodland and most rather artificial amenity land.
He also taught me the importance of remembering the history and the records of our habitats – when he told us about passages from the Domesday Book describing boundaries of ancient woodland then, and then related how he’d managed to follow those same woodland boundaries now and found them much unchanged – right down to a wild service tree as a boundary marker on one woodland – I was just infected with this fascination with how the landscape has changed (or not) over time and matching historical records to what we see now in terms of ecology and land use. Perhaps I also owe to Oliver Rackham my interest in local history. I can certainly thank him for my later passion for some of the local nature sites in east London when I moved to Queen Mary for my PhD.
So hearing that future students and ecologists would no longer be able to enjoy his lectures was terribly sad. He published many, many books, however, and I hope that they will continue to be read and treasured and the knowledge Professor Rackham has given to us will help towards safeguarding the amazing ancient woodlands we have left. Thank you, Professor Rackham. I am grateful to have benefited from your knowledge and passion.
1The honeysuckle whitefly, when found in conjunction with parasitoids like Euderomphale chelidonii and predators like the horseshoe ladybird Clitostethus arcuatus, seems to be a fairly good (though of course not 100% reliable) indicator of ancient woodland and is a fascinating and a charming little insect. I hope I get to spend more time exploring its ecology in the future.