October 17 — Oliver Rackham born (1939)

Oliver Rackham, the world’s foremost expert on the ancient woodlands of England, was born on October 17, 1939 (died 2015).  He spent his career and life investigating the history of landscapes, especially the wooded ecosystems of England and Crete.

Oliver Rackham was born in Suffolk, on the southeastern coast of England.  He was an excellent student who intended to become a physicist.  But when his advisor at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, suggested that he take an additional course in biology, he found his true love—botany.  He remained at Cambridge throughout his life, rising through the ranks to become a Fellow and, for a year, Master of the college.  As he aged, he became an eccentric figure around campus, sporting long white hair and beard and wearing orange socks and sandals to formal dinners.

He learned to read the landscape as others might read a book, finding clues to the past in such overlooked items as tree stumps and the undulations of the forest floor. He studied ancient documents and drawings, along with ancient trees, to construct his assessment of the processes that drove forest formation and evolution.   His work led to a complete re-understanding of the history and nature of rural landscapes in England.  Rather than the countryside being largely wooded in ancient times, Rackham showed that it had been the same mixture of field and forest that exists today, and that the actions of humans interacting with the forest had produced the variety, beauty and utility of forestlands.

He presented his findings to both scientists and the general public in a series of books.  He described pollarding, the practice of cutting trees and allowing multiple stems to grow back; explained the origin of ancient place names related to tree species and wood-use terms; showed how trees and shrubs of different sizes, shapes and species supplied small-scale forest industries; and explored how the shapes of tree trunks guided the characteristic shapes of early wooden homes.  His greatest academic achievement was publication of “The History of the Countryside” in 1986.  Later, with co-author Jennifer Moody, he used the same skills of observation and historical research to describe “The Making of the Cretan Landscape” in 1996.

Rackham’s understanding of woodland ecology drove major changes in British forest management.  He argued for natural regeneration of trees, rather than tree-planting campaigns that often used exotic species or single-species stands.  His popular book, “Ancient Woodland:  Its History, Vegetation and Use in England,” first published in 1980, brought the subject to the attention of the public.  Consequently, preservation of woodlands became a major initiative of environmental groups, leading to a vast expansion of protected forests in the U.K.  Never shy about his opinions for proper management of forests, his response to overpopulation of deer was simple and direct:  “Eat Bambi.”

He was appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 1998 for his service to natural conservation and became an honorary professor of Historical Ecology at Cambridge in 2006.  He died after a short illness in 2015.


Grubb, Peter.  2015.  Oliver Rackham obituary.  The Guardian, 20 February 2015.  Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/20/oliver-rackham.  Accessed October 16, 2017.

The Economist.  Into the woods (Obituary:  Oliver Rackham).  The Economist, March 12, 2015.  Available at:  https://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21646173-oliver-rackham-plant-pathologist-and-woodland-archaeologist-died-february-12th-aged.  Accessed October 16, 2017.

The Telegraph.  2015.  Professor Oliver Rackham, historical ecologist – obituary.  The Telegraph, 19 February 2015.  Available at:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/11417959/Professor-Oliver-Rackham-historical-ecologist-obituary.html.  Accessed October 16, 2017.