Robert Marsham’s Legacy

Robert Marsham's CedarThe last remaining cedar – planted by Robert Marsham in 1747 – towers majestically over Stratton Strawless wood: its recorded height in 2000 was a staggering 102 feet.

In 2007, its circumference – measured 1 metre from the ground – was an impressive 7.2 metres.

Most of Robert’s plantings were clearfelled for much needed timber in the First and Second World Wars. Other parts of the Marsham estate were ploughed over for farming. What he left are a few ancient trees, the remains of his avenue of oaks, and particularly in his giant cedar (planted in 1747).

Sadly most of his writings haven’t survived. The book he prepared a manuscript for was never published, and the location of his diaries is unknown. However, there are articles he published in journals, some of his letters to others, and some Victorian transcriptions from his diaries. These present the picture of a man of science with an obsession with trees. James Grigor described him as “an individual who excelled all his contemporaries, in this quarter, in the work of planting, of whom his oaks form the most fitting of all memorials”. Robert’s views on planting had a wider impact as they were very influential on the landscape designs of Humphry Repton.

Giant Cedar BaseRobert was one of the first to experiment with root cutting, trenching and bark-scrubbing. He was preoccupied with improving tree growth and continually tested unorthodox methods of pruning and thinning his forest plantations.

Of huge importance today are the Marsham Family Indications of Spring. These provide unique records of Springs between 1736 and 1958, and how they related to the weather of those particular years.

Why is this important?

We are now facing the challenge of a rapidly warming planet and we need to know how the natural world responds to climate in order to predict the consequences for the future.

Examination of the Marsham records show us just how responsive Spring events are to temperature; for example leafing may be typically advanced by 8 days for each 1°C that it is warmer. Furthermore, these records warn us that not all species respond at the same rate. For example, Hawthorn appears very responsive to warming temperatures but Beech much less so. Consequently climate change is likely to result in conflict in the natural world.

If nothing else Robert Marsham showed us that it is possible in a single human lifetime to achieve so much. His records show us that species are clearly going to change their flowering and leafing dates in the future. The results demonstrate the importance of using examples of climate change impacts that the public can understand, and without these records it would have been doubtful if either of the Victorian or the current 21st century network of phenological recorders would have existed.

Robert was – without a doubt – a precursor of the eco-conscious environmentalists we have today like David Attenborough, Bill Oddie and David Bellamy.

Perhaps more than anything, the work of Robert Marsham is inspirational to today’s phenologists, modern environmental scientists, land and eco-management experts, and forestry managers across the globe.