Professor Oliver Rackham - The scholarly eccentric from Suffolk who changed our view of woods
Tributes have been paid to an inspirational Suffolk-born naturalist who became Britain’s leading woodland ecologist and landscape historian.
Professor Oliver Rackham, who was born in the Waveney Valley hamlet of Wainford, near Bungay, died in Papworth Hospital, Cambridgeshire, a few days after collapsing at a dinner event. He was 75.
The only son of bank clerk Geoffrey Rackham and his wife Norah, he spent his early childhood in and around Bungay, where he first became fascinated with the landscape of the local countryside .
He was educated at Edward VI Grammar School, Norwich, and took an A-level in botany at Norwich City College before, in 1958, winning a major entrance scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
He gained a first class degree in natural science, followed by a doctrinal dissertation on the physiology of plant growth and transpiration.
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He remained at Cambridge for the rest of his career, eventually becoming an independent research fellow based at Corpus Christi. He served as Master of Corpus Christi in 2007, and was made an honorary fellow in 2008 and a life fellow in 2010. In 1998 he was appointed OBE for services to nature conservation, and in 2006 he was made an honorary professor of historical ecology at Cambridge.
Bearded, long-haired and somewhat eccentric, often opting to wear sandals over orange socks, Rackham became revered on the strength of his writings. To say his scholarly books advanced knowledge of the UK’s woodlands and landscapes is an understatement - they completely changed perceptions about them and elevated them to an entirely new status.
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His research on Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire developed the concept of “ancient” woodlands.
His 1980 book Ancient Woodland, its History, Vegetation and Uses in England has been hailed as a masterpiece but many environmentalists give even higher acclaim to his monumental 1986 work The History of the Countryside, an account of the British landscape from prehistory to modern times.
His last major work, Woodlands in 2006, was the 100th volume in the New Naturalist series, and encompassed all his many interests in the subject, including the use of timber in a wide range of buildings. In 2014’s The Ash Tree, a publication which he started writing during a spell in hospital in Texas, he paid tribute to the tree that is now threatened by the fungus Chalara.
He was a gifted linguist - reading Latin for relaxation - and was acclaimed for his work linking ecology and archaeology.
A lifelong bachelor, he was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2002.
Prof Rackham made several visits to his native Suffolk in recent years, often linking up with Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
Julian Roughton, the trust’s chief executive, recalled: “Oliver Rackham’s book Ancient Woodland was an inspiration to me as a teenager. I read it from cover to cover and, when the opportunity arose, came to Bradfield Woods - perhaps his most studied wood - as a student to volunteer.
“He was as inspiring in real life as he was in print. Walking around a woodland with him was like having an ancient text translated.
“He could interpret banks, pollards, ridges and vegetation changes and put together the history of a landscape.
“His knowledge and inspiration not only prevented the destruction of Bradfield Woods, when this was under threat, but led to a new appreciation for ancient woodlands and an understanding that these were as precious and irreplaceable as medieval churches.
“Oliver kept in close touch with Suffolk Wildlife Trust. He loved to see the vast area of natural regeneration alongside Arger Fen and last year was at Bradfield Woods to look at ash dieback. He was as enthusiastic and curious as ever whilst we followed him around the wood like a group of devotees trailing a guru - hanging on every word.
“We will miss his expertise and passion but his books remain as masterpieces of writing and scholarship.”