Oliver Rackham has published a new book – The Ash Tree.
Oliver Rackham is one of my heroes – I have studied his work in great detail all of my career starting with his amazing book Ancient Woodland first published in 1980. Amongst the other classic books he has written are the History of the Countryside (1986) and the Collins New Naturalist – Woodlands (2006). For me he invented historical ecology (the study of the past to guide the future) and coined the phrase ‘factoid’ – an incorrect piece of information believed to be true because it has been incorrectly and repeatedly repeated.
I had the privilege of going on one of Rackham’s Field Studies Council courses (based at Flatform Mill) in the 1980s and met him on and off at Hayley Wood when I was the Operations Director at the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northampton in the 1990s.
Those familiar with Rackham’s previous work will recognise his style in the first four chapters of his new book: The ash tree: what it is and how it behaves; The ash tree in prehistory and history; Veteran, ancient and exceptional ash trees and Cultural, spiritual and material ash.
These chapters catalogue in meticulous detail the rise of the ash over the centuries to a position where it has become one of our commonest and most resilient trees. I won’t try and summarise all the detail and stories – read it for yourselves and then consider what you have written as the definitive account.
Chapters 5 and 6 (Pests and diseases & Recent past and future) see an altogether more irritated and frustrated Rackham. In these chapters he covers deer browsing (more deer in the UK than for 1000 years which have stopped ash (and oak and hazel etc.) from regenerating; climate change – a phenomenon which is occurring but not one that will finish off ash and plant diseases including ash dieback (or ash disease as Rackham prefers).
His insights into ash dieback are very interesting, for example why was the fungus so impactful in 2012 but not in 2013 or 2014? He suggests that ash dieback may be a problem in the UK but it is unlikely to be catastrophic but another pest the emerald ash borer beetle which is currently not in the UK will cause havoc if it arrives from the US (it originally came from the Far East).
His message is that if we continue to trade and ship plants around the world as we currently do as if they were commodities such as ‘cars or tins of paint’ we will reap the whirlwind and our remaining tracts of historical ecology will be lost forever.
The last two chapters are not a comfortable read but they are essential reading. Rackham is clearly tired of repeating this core message and is completely frustrated by governments’ and bureaucrats’ unwillingness to act. Rackham concludes ‘Homo sapiens have proved to be an increasingly unreliable guardian of the world’s trees’.
Suggest you read this book – its publication will help us all avoid factoids.