Rediscovered eco diaries shed new light on one of the world's most studied woods

By Richard Moss | 12 December 2014

Diaries found in Oxford are offering ecological insights into how an Oxfordshire woodland evolved in the post war years


a black and white photo of a group of people in a woodland
1950 class, Elton in middle, relaxing after a hard morning's work© University of Oxford
Wytham Woods, an area of ancient semi-natural woodland west of Oxford, is one of the most studied areas of woodland in the world.

Given to the University of Oxford in 1942 by the ffennel family, the rustic setting is now referred to as “Oxford’s Ecological Laboratory” and has hosted numerous undergraduate and postgraduate students and generated a wealth of long term biological data, including more than 60 years of bird data, a 40-year vegetation record and badger data from more than 30 years.

However, despite being a hive of activity between the 1940s and 1960s and helping to define the fields of ecology and evolutionary biology, Wytham Woods has, until very recently, suffered from a gap in its post war data.

Thanks to a chance discovery at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford, these post-war years of research are being brought to life via the diaries and photographs of the famous ecologist and zoologist Charles Elton.

Elton, whose 1927 book Animal Ecology is still regarded as a classic, led scores of undergraduate expeditions into the ancient woodland between the 1940s and 1960s. His diaries provide a unique insight into how an Oxfordshire woodland evolved from the Second World War to the swinging sixties.

Today, the site boasts an exceptionally rich flora and fauna, with more than 500 species of vascular plants and 800 species of butterflies and moths. But the diaries, which are about to be released digitally, detail Elton's regular visits to Wytham between 1942 and 1965 and paint a vivid and more complete picture of the woods' history and wildlife.

During this period, Elton also developed his interest in the impact of invasive species on natural ecosystems and published another influential tome on the subject.

As well as documenting the many ecological changes at Wytham, Elton's accompanying photographs of his forays reveal fascinating changes in ecologists as a species.

“The pictures show more ties on students, more smoking, the women regularly wear skirts for field work and some of the pictures reveal what today's leading ecologists looked like in their student days," says Dr Keith Kirby, of the University of Oxford.

“Most of us owe a great debt to those researchers who have gone before us.

“Newton described it as ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.  I can express this in a slightly different way – once a month, for the last year I have literally been walking in the footsteps of one of ecology’s giants, Charles Elton.”

If you want to get an insight into 20th century British ecology, the development of an English woodland, and the heady world of post war student fashion, visit wytham.ox.ac.uk.

a photo of a man with a machete in one hand and a cigarette in the other peering behind a fallen tree trunk
Hunting beetles with machete and cigarette 1952.© University of Oxford
a photo of two women collecting things in a woodland
Ms. T. Dobbs and Ms. M. Bennett collecting insects around a fallen tree, Wytham Woods, 1952.© University of Oxford
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