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A Celebration of British Forestry

Marking the retirement of Peter Savill

By Gabriel Hemery, Jo Clark and Peter Kanowski

Gabriel Hemery (left) introduces Peter Savill to the assembled group.

Gabriel Hemery (left) introduces Peter Savill to the assembled group.

The achievements and contribution made to British forestry by Woodland Heritage trustee Peter Savill, were celebrated at a field day in September, to mark Peter’s retirement from the Oxford Forestry Institute, University of Oxford.

Peter “retired” in September 2006 after a professional career of 44 years – the first four of which were spent in Africa, the next 14 in Northern Ireland, and the last 26 at Oxford. With characteristic Savillian modesty, Peter eschewed suggestions of any retirement event beyond that organised by Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences for its staff and students. Undeterred, a small group of Oxford-based colleagues conspired, in collusion with Peter’s wife Michelle, to organise a surprise event to allow a much greater cast of colleagues and former students to celebrate his professional achievements. Over 100 attended the event, christened ‘A celebration of British forestry’. The breadth of Peter’s work and influence was recognised by the wide array of guests from the UK and overseas – spanning forestry education, policy, research, silviculture and furniture making – and a correspondingly broader discussion about the achievements of and opportunities for British forestry, rather than the usual debate about poor markets, grey squirrels, and storm damage!


Peter Savill's Career

Peter’s career began in 1962 with a four year stint as Assistant Conservator of Forests in Sierra Leone, undertaking research, management and inventories of rainforest. In 1966, he took up the post of Forest Officer in the Northern Ireland Forest Service, where he served for 14 years, spanning forestry’s major afforestation phase. He had responsibility for most aspects of silvicultural research – primarily on Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine, conducting trials involving nutrition, spacing, thinning, provenance, weeding/herbicides, ground preparation and problems of crop stability. This period established the foundations of Peter’s work in temperate silviculture, which diversified and blossomed in the next phase of his career.

Peter took up the Lectureship in Silviculture at Oxford University’s Forestry Institute (OFI) in 1980. His responsibilities included teaching undergraduates in various guises, initially in Agriculture and Forest Sciences and subsequently in the Biology component of the BA, and graduates in OFI’s flagship M.Sc. course in Forestry and its Relation to Land Use, which he also directed for a period in the 1980s.

The University Lectureship allowed Peter to broaden his research beyond temperate plantation forests and he progressively developed a research programme and the coterie of research students addressing some of the many challenges and opportunities in growing and managing British broadleaved woodlands. The associated Fellowship at Linacre College, where he eventually became (amongst other roles) Senior Tutor, provided a base to engage with a much wider range of Oxford students, as well as the many forestry M.Sc. and D.Phils who gravitated to Linacre under the Savill mantle.During his university career, Peter supervised an astonishing 25 D.Phil. students and over 50 M.Sc. students, as well as teaching hundreds more.

The research which Peter has led over the past few decades on British semi-natural broadleaved woodlands has been of fundamental importance to contemporary British forest policy and management, and in generating knowledge of particular species – notably Ash, Beech, Oak, and Walnut. Peter’s work crossed the traditional silviculture/genetics divide; he has been centrally involved in genetic improvement of British hardwoods for the past 15 years, and currently chairs the British & Irish Hardwoods Improvement Programme (BIHIP).

Peter has been – and remains – a prolific author, writing four books, two book chapters, 11 single author publications and 55 joint publications – and still counting. There are many important works amongst these, including Peter’s 1991 book ‘The silviculture of trees used in British forestry’, which continues to be a popular and important resource for British students and foresters, and his 1986 joint work with Julian Evans, ‘Plantation forestry in temperate regions’, which remains an authoritative text. Peter’s work also extended internationally, both in collaboration with European colleagues in silviculture and genetic resources of temperate hardwoods, and through the supervision of student projects as diverse as Douglas Fir yield modelling in Portugal and the ecology of Khaya anthotheca in Mozambique. His experience as a consultant in various African and Asian countries probably helped him to address some of the institutional and practical challenges he has faced – more recently in undertaking seed collection of Walnut in central Asia.

Many others know Peter through his professional roles, as a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Foresters, one of its Council members between 1982 and 1987, as convenor of the Institute’s Part 1 Examinations Board, 1991-94, and as co-editor of its journal Forestry between 1995-2002. Peter also served the Government in a variety of roles, including as a member of the Forestry Commission’s Advisory Committee on Forest Research from 1996.


A Celebration of British Forestry

Peter Savill speaks about the Ash trial plot.

Peter Savill speaks about the Ash trial plot.

The celebratory field day was hosted by The Northmoor Trust, centred at their forestry research site ‘Paradise Wood’, near Little Wittenham in Oxfordshire. Paradise Wood occupies a prime location about 10 miles from Oxford, adjacent to the Thames and the historic Wittenham Clumps, and has been the focus of much collaborative broadleaved forestry research since 1993.

Peter has been closely involved in almost all aspects of this research. The field day programme took participants on a pre-lunch ramble through the series of trials established over the previous 13 years, beginning with the UK’s first “Breeding Seedling Orchard” of Ash, Fraxinus excelsior, one of four across England. Peter explained the stand’s origins and management, and how it was about to be “rogued” (thinned on the basis of genetic quality), to become the first source of quality-assured Ash seed for Britain.


Jason Hubert (with family strapped in) holds forth!

Jason Hubert (with family strapped in) holds forth!

Gabriel Hemery, who managed Paradise Wood between 1992 and 2005, used a Walnut (Juglans regia) trial as the backdrop to recount the story of Walnut research conducted by the Northmoor Trust. Amongst its highlights were a memorable RFS-supported seed-collecting expedition he made with Peter to Kyrgyzstan in 1997, in (successful) search of superior quality Walnut trees.

Gabriel also described Peter’s subsequent research with the Northmoor Trust in Walnut research, including ground-breaking work on provenance variation and silviculture, in both establishment and mixed silvicultural techniques arising from a BIHIP study tour of Italy. There was strong interest amongst participants in the trial assessing the use of nurse tree and shrub species in Walnut growing; these results are about to be reported in another of Peter’s many co-authored publications.

Participants’ odyssey through Paradise Wood’s suite of contemporary British broadleaved research continued with Jo Clark, the Northmoor Trust’s Forestry Research Manager, explaining research on Ash and Beech provenance selection. The demonstrably poor performance of Romanian sourced Ash compared to more locally-adapted sources from France and Yorkshire provided a salutary lesson for British forestry, which relied on Eastern European sources of Ash and other ‘native’ species early in the farm woodland afforestation period.

These issues led to discussion of implications of climate change for British broadleaves, a topic which Jo Clark is exploring in part in her doctoral research. The field programme concluded with discussions led by two of Peter’s other collaborators, the Northmoor Trust’s Director of Land Operations Tom Curtis, and Natural England’s Keith Kirby, on the role of trees and woods in the landscape. These discussions and the field tour were brought to a timely and appropriate finale by a lunchtime thunderstorm, with emphatic thunderclaps and a deluge sufficient to remind Peter of his time in Sierra Leone!


A Good Send Off

Peter proudly shows his WH massive Elm wassail bowl.

Peter proudly shows his WH massive Elm wassail bowl.

Martin and Audrey Wood hosted lunch in their hall at Little Wittenham Manor. A splendid extended lunch offered participants – who had come from throughout the British Isles and Europe, and from at least three continents – the opportunity to catch up with each other, and to share suitably embellished memories of Peter’s exploits.

These informal reminiscences were followed by a suite of speeches from former colleagues and students: Professor Peter Kanowski (Head of Forestry, Australian National University), Dr Simon Pryor (Environment & Conservation Advisor with Forestry Commission England), Peter Goodwin(Director of Titchmarsh & Goodwin, and Chairman of Woodland Heritage), and Sir Martin Wood (Patron, Northmoor Trust).

Peter Goodwin presented Peter Savill with a huge hand-turned wassail bowl, a traditional vessel for serving wassail, a type of hot punch. Dr Nick Brown(Lecturer in Plant Sciences, Oxford University) proposed a concluding champagne toast and presented Peter with a gift from all those present, a (commissioned, and to be completed) landscape painting of the Oxfordshire landscape around the Wittenhams.

Peter responded with his characteristic modesty and understatement, reflecting on the satisfaction his work with so many others – including, but not limited to, those present – had given him, and explaining his plans to continue working actively in forestry, both in some aspects of the research we had been discussing in the field, and – amongst other roles – as a trustee for both the Northmoor Trust and Woodland Heritage.

Peter concluded with a sentiment that many others expressed privately – that events such as this, at which so many forestry friends gathered, were all too rare, and that – while he was glad to provide the excuse for such a gathering on this occasion – “we should do this more often”!


Our sincere thanks to Gabriel and Jo’s organising co-conspirators, David Boshier and Nick Brown (both Plant Sciences, Oxford University), Tom Curtis (Northmoor Trust), and Michelle Taylor; and to Sir Martin and Lady Audrey Wood, and the Northmoor Trust, for hosting the celebration.



Dear Peter, Lewis and other Trustees,

I was overwhelmed, delighted (and a bit embarrassed) by the marvellous surprise retirement day event arranged at Little Wittenham last Saturday.You played your parts in keeping it secret very effectively ! I found it very moving that so many of you were prepared to give up a Saturday and travel so far to be there.

The Elm Wassail bowl that you all so generously contributed to and signed, and which Peter presented with such humour on everyone’s behalf will be a permanent, attractive and memorable reminder to Michelle and me of the day.Thank you all so much.

The fact that I have now retired from Oxford University, does not mean that I am stepping down from other interests as well – rather the reverse. I now expect to have more time to contribute as a Trustee of Woodland Heritage, and look forward to doing this.

With good wishes and very many thanks.
Yours sincerely,

Peter Savill

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