Oliver Rackham, lover of trees

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.

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The importance of brownfield

I don’t know if this is wading in a bit too deep for a first blog post, instantly raising the politics of development and greenfield versus brownfield, but it is a matter that’s close to my heart. In particular, I feel the need to defend brownfield sites before they’re all written off as desolate industrial wastelands and redeveloped into something else without consideration of what is being lost in the process. I’m not the first person to do this, admittedly: Buglife have been quite vocal about it already, but it’s important, so the more people talk about it, perhaps the more other people will be prompted to think about it.

At the moment the whole business of greenfield versus brownfield development is coming up left, right and centre. On the one hand, you have the groups who are outraged at development of agricultural land and countryside for housing, etc., often close to their own homes and on the outskirts of towns and villages. Understandably, some people want development to happen elsewhere and don’t like seeing countryside they love turned into housing estates. Suggesting brownfield as a target seems compelling in such a case – it’s that concrete stuff in cities that’s an eyesore, right?

On the other hand, as an example, you have the tense indrawn breath that came from the room of entomologists at the BES/AES Citizen Science Special Interest Group meeting last October, when a respected Peer suggested developing brownfield land should be a priority in preference to greenfield. The unfortunate Peer seemed genuinely surprised at a bunch of ecologists would want to protect brownfield preferentially. And to be honest, who can blame him? Essentially, everyone in the room wanted the same thing: to ensure most development happened on sites with less ecological value, preserving the sites with more ecological value. However, where we disagreed was how to assess that value, and which sites came out on top.

I think all this stems from the incongruity between what people think brownfield is, and what brownfield actually can be.

I suspect if you asked many people what they thought a brownfield site looked like, they’d suggest something like a disused factory, concrete “eyesore” or another rubbish-strewn urban site attracting fly-tipping and unsavoury behaviours. And it’s true that ordinarily all of those things are indeed brownfield and probably most of them would be nicer – for both people and ecology – if they were redeveloped sensitively.

However, brownfield encompasses pretty much all ex-industrial and ex-commercial land, for fairly liberal definitions of “ex”, “industrial” and “commercial”. Lodge Hill, contentious and threatened home to 1% of the UK’s nightingales and designated SSSI, is arguably considered to be at least 20% brownfield1 (ironically, some of the comments in articles defending this site include exhortations to develop brownfield in the place of Lodge Hill). Brownfield sites, in fact, include a large number of rare, marginal and delicate habitats – think of environments such thin gravel, moss/lichen, ex-quarries, early successional habitats and so on, common on brownfield sites. Large areas of bare ground can warm faster than the surrounding environments, resulting in cosy little microclimates. The thin soils provide an opportunity for the types of plants that tolerate difficult conditions but would compete poorly in a more traditionally hospitable environment like a back garden. Consequently, some brownfield sites can host all manner of fascinating and fantastic species, from the infinitely charming Horrid Ground Weaver (abandoned quarry) to a whole variety of scarce beetles (Eyre et al. 2003). Ground-nesting bumblebees such as B. sylvarum and B. humilis are also quite fond of some of the more plant-y brownfield sites across north Kent, such as areas of the Hoo peninsula. While these little invertebrates are not as naturally charismatic as pandas, they are still species living with a great big metaphorical axe hanging over their heads (and probably in general a lot cheaper to protect).

Brownfield is in many ways serving a function that other habitats – coastlands, heathlands, scrub and rough grassland – used to serve for nature in terms of the levels of disturbance and stress (in a good way) placed on the organisms within it, and the species assemblages that consequently are supported. Unfortunately, we’ve managed to get rid of a large wedge of our heathlands, scrublands and rough grasslands from where they used to be, so brownfield is kind of what we’ll have to rely on to fill the gaps.

It’s perfectly possible for a site to be considered brownfield and yet be hugely diverse, host a number of priority conservation species and include areas of rare habitat. Similarly, not all greenfield sites have any particularly noteworthy ecological value – some former arable land is a bit of an insect/plant/bird diversity desert, with very limited value as a functioning ecosystem. Of course, it may have other values – food production, dog walking, public enjoyment. How these weigh up in the mind of an entomologist versus a politician versus someone who owns four Labradors might be quite different, admittedly.

It seems that people with biodiversity concerns about formerly-developed but high-natural-value sites are starting to divide into two groups, however – there are those who oppose the classification of green-looking sites with high natural diversity as “brownfield” from the outset, and those who are willing to let sites be called brownfield while trying to emphasise the natural value. I can see the logic in both approaches, but I suspect the lack of a coherent terminology/message may damage the cause in the long-term.

So before we write off all brownfield as “worthless” and assume all greenfield is “green and biodiverse”, let’s take a look at what really lives there, and what might be gone forever if we change it, before deciding which bits should go first.

1The RSPB argue it’s mostly greenfield; the council and MoD argue it’s considered a brownfield site.

References

Allen, D. (2011) The distribution, ecology and conservation of the Horrid ground-weaver Nothophantes horridus. Buglife.

Dale, J. (accessed 2015) Brownfields, England’s rainforests. Presentation: UEL/Buglife

Eyre, M. D., Luff, M. L., & Woodward, J. C. (2003). Beetles (Coleoptera) on brownfield sites in England: An important conservation resource? Journal of Insect Conservation, 7(4), 223-231.