The Oliver Rackham Memorial Walk.

Tim Pankhurst remembers a giant of woodland conservation.

September 10 2015 - 14:02

Last April, one Friday after work, I drove out to Hayley Wood, the Befordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust’s first nature reserve, to join an organised walk.  It was just lovely, the woodland floor scattered with pale yellow oxlip and the creamy white of wood anemone, pinpricks of violet hinting at the bluebells to come and the coppiced hazel dotted with delicate green breaking buds. 

But this wasn’t just a regular spring walk; it was an annual fixture with the Cambridgeshire Conservation Forum (CCF) and was meant to be led by Professor Oliver Rackham, who sadly died in February this year.  

It was Oliver of course who made Hayley famous with the publication in 1975 of the seminal work Hayley Wood, its History and Ecology. He is perhaps more widely known for the magnificent The History of the Countryside and other works of consequence, but it really all began at Hayley, which was, in 1964, one of the first of the country’s ancient woods to have coppicing revived specifically for conservation purposes.  Although, by the time it was published, restoration coppicing was gathering credibility as a management approach and being applied elsewhere, Oliver’s book spread the word more widely and, more importantly, provided a foundation stone in the evidence base justifying the work.  It is easy to forget just how deeply unpopular ‘cutting down trees’ was back then and people needed to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do. Restoration coppicing is now a well established and widely applied conservation approach, in great part due to Oliver Rackham’s work at Hayley Wood.

Above: Coppiced woodland at Plantlife's Ranscombe Farm Reserve in Kent.

So the CCF, in essence the community of the conservation bodies based in Cambridge, decided to hold the very well attended walk in honour of Oliver and we had a very pleasant stroll round the wood, renewing old acquaintances, chatting about the management and sharing stories of Oliver.  My memories go back to the nineties when I was Reserves Manager for the Trust and responsible for the wood; Oliver was a stalwart of the management committee, pitching up in his trademark bright orange socks and sandals, and was always ready with helpful guidance, on Hayley and any other aspect of woodland policy.  His passing of course means the loss of a learned source of advice but more significantly the start of a new, post-Rackham, era in conservation woodland management, one of established practice built on experimental evidence and critical observation, most of which he provided himself.

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