Dr Oliver Rackham joins the discussion in the Future of our Woodlands


in Expert Articles, Opinion

We are incredibly lucky to be able to share with you a correspondence from leading ecological botanist, Dr Oliver Rackham, OBE.

SOW are relieved (and no doubt many others will be) to hear the insights of Dr Rackham.  Particularly at this stage, when the independent panel is about to be announced and the debate on what is best for our Public Forest Estate enters into the next stage – greater depth and exploration of the facts by leading experts.


I have contributed very little to this debate, largely because it never got so far as detailed proposals that I could agree or disagree with. I spent much of my professional life denouncing the Forestry Commission as destroyer of woodland. Then in the 1990s they reformed and I have generally agreed with them.

What happened? I suspect that DEFRA recently discovered – what I could have told them if they had asked me – that in the early 1990s there had been a round of disposals in which the FC had sold most of the land that it owned. What was left was mostly not its to sell, for instance being land held on long lease from private owners. The supposed conflict of interest was resolved in 1996 by the separation of Forest Authority from Forest Enterprise; although that separation has somewhat faded since, it could be revived at a stroke of the pen without controversy. The ensuing 15 years were enough for these changes to be forgotten, especially as DEFRA was a new ministry without corporate memory. Hence the proposals collapsed into farce as soon as they began to do their research. You can no doubt imagine a script on the lines of Yes, Prime Minister!

So, the problem has apparently gone away until another 15 years brings amnesia. However, the FC has acquired a huge amount of public goodwill, which may or may not be deserved. The time has come to take advantage of this and consider the future of public forestry in the light of new objectives (especially woodland conservation) and new threats (especially globalization of tree diseases).

How can public forestry in Britain get the stability which it has enjoyed in other countries, such as France, but which has been so lacking in its brief history in this country?

Yours sincerely,
Oliver Rackham.


Dr Oliver Rackham, OBE

Is an acknowledged authority on trees, woodlands and wood pasture and was elected Master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge for the year of 2008.

Among many, many academic achievements, Dr Rackham is Honorary Professor of Historical Ecology in the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge and was awarded the OBE for services to Nature Conservation in 1998.

He has written many influential books, among which is the definitive study of our British landscape:  ‘History of the Countryside‘ and the definitive study of our woodlands: Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape; the complete history of Britain’s trees, woods and hedgerows‘.

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John December 23, 2011 at 14:15

Didn’t know what to take from this!!

What would ‘public forestry stability’ involve?

Why is there so much talk of future tree diseases? I understand climate change but I don’t understand why this will create so many more diseases. Trees will be out of their climatic tolerance zones and therefore become weaker and become more susceptable to diseases with changing climate? Will these diseases be already apparent in Britain as a natural but low lying part of the ecology or will they come from abroad (and if so, how?).

Chris Acraman October 31, 2013 at 17:32

It is an issue unrelated to climate change as such, but more about globalisation of the diseases caused by transport of trees around the world. For instance, Ash dieback is killing off many trees allover Europe with a very high mortality rate, but in it’s native country of Japan, the trees are resistant to it. It is the transport of diseases around the world that is the problem, not that new diseases are being created. The tree importation industry is huge, for example 5 million Ash trees were imported into the UK from Holland between 2003 and 2009. Hope that helps!

Pip Howard December 26, 2011 at 12:08

Hello John,
This may be of some help in explaining further the threats of pests re climate change: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/fr/INFD-5ZXGXZ

re Public forestry stability, I cannot speak for Oliver Rackham of course, but there is, (as with most other public services), an ongoing trend to interfere by central government & others. This is understandable, but given the long term issues involved with forestry makes management difficult and governmental aspirations are always short sighted. One option is to remove the role of the FC away from government completly – thus allowing the evolution of the needs of a PFE to become realised without pressure, but it is controversial and an element of the forestry panel discussion which will be hotly debated, thus watch this space.

John January 7, 2012 at 16:42

Thanks for the links and info Pip. Very useful.

What would a PFE be? A company/charity? Still funded by Government? Hmm

Paul Cooke April 29, 2012 at 17:03

This is possibly outside the remit of this site, but this would be close to Oliver Rakham`s heart ……
Are people here aware of the pending devestation about to be inflicted on the Lefki Ori (White Mountains) of Western Crete? Plans to build 1,000 (yes,1,000) wind farms across, what is possibly, the last great wilderness of Western Europe. The first cable has just been sunk, which will connect Crete to Cyprus, and Cyprus to Israel. There has been no local consultation. A year ago, central government announced that all land over 500m was now considered owned by the state. This was previously all land over 850m. The reason given was to increase the area protected by `National Park` status. 17 of these wind farms will be visible from the coast. no consultation or research has taken place concerning noise and the destruction of habitat for rare birds of prey (see The Making of Crete, Oliver Rackham & Jennifer Moody). Each turbine will rquire 6000m2 of concrete surround. George Soros recently said that the big problem in Europe was not so much the Euro crisis, but that there was little apparent Democracy. These Sphakian farmers need our help. if you have any ideas, please leave a note here and email me on savecrete@hotmail.com.

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