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Rodney Helliwell 1940–2018

Author:  Steve Coombes
Last Updated:  26/06/2018

Pioneering silviculturist, arboriculturist, ecologist

Rodney Helliwell at the Continuous Cover Forestry Group’s workshop on daylight in the forest, September 2009, Westonbirt Arboretum. (Courtesy of Edward Wilson)

Rodney Helliwell at the Continuous Cover Forestry Group’s workshop on daylight in the forest, September 2009, Westonbirt Arboretum. (Courtesy of Edward Wilson)

Rodney Helliwell died on 23 February 2018 after a typically determined fight with cancer. He was 77 years old. The tree world has lost a leading light, someone unafraid to challenge orthodoxy who promoted innovations rooted in a deep understanding of trees and of woodland ecosystems. His sharp intellect and dedication made Rodney who he was. He was a much sought-after tree and woodland expert and a valued colleague to many. To many who worked with him he became a good friend. Rodney was a quiet, brilliant but modest man. He leaves Carole, his wife of 47 years, two sons and two grandchildren.

Rodney was born in Halifax on 2 April 1940, the third of four children. During his childhood the family moved around quite a lot due to his father’s job, finally moving to Hoylake on the Wirral from where he left to do his degree at the University College of North Wales (now Bangor University).

He obtained a BSc honours degree in forestry in 1961, with forest soils as his optional subject. After two years in private forestry he returned to the university where he undertook research into factors affecting the natural regeneration of sycamore and was awarded an MSc in forestry in 1965. He continued his formal education at Birmingham Institute of Art and Design (now Birmingham City University) where he gained a Diploma in Landscape Architecture (1968).

He worked for Staffordshire County Planning Department for three years (1964–67) before joining a new section of the Nature Conservancy (1967–73). When the Nature Conservancy was reorganised in 1973, Rodney transferred to the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology (ITE) and continued his research into the growth of trees and herbs on different soils, in addition to surveys of woodland and montane vegetation.

In 1978 he established his own consultancy practice. This gave him the freedom to pursue a diverse range of projects throughout Britain and in Europe including woodland management, ecological surveys, the establishment and re-establishment of semi-natural vegetation, tree surveys and related matters. Among several high-profile consultancies, he was engaged as terrestrial ecologist to the Channel Tunnel Project (1985–96). This resulted in important examples of habitat translocation and new woodland creation (e.g. the design and establishment of vegetation at Samphire Hoe, Dover, on spoil from the Channel Tunnel).

From the mid-1960s Rodney was a prolific author and contributor to scientific journals in the fields of arboriculture, forestry, ecology and landscape, producing over 60 authoritative and influential publications. In the field of arboriculture alone, Rodney has contributed immensely to our knowledge of tree root morphology, water tables and trees, tree surveys and inspections, risk associated with trees, daylight relating to trees and buildings and the amenity valuation of trees and woodlands. He was also an expert editor, and served for many years on the Editorial Board of the Arboricultural Journal.

For several years he was involved with setting and marking papers for the Royal Forestry Society (RFS) Professional Diploma in Arboriculture. He served as a judge for the RFS Excellence in Forestry Awards and gave lectures at several universities. Rodney was a stalwart of many forestry and arboriculture organisations. At the time of his death he was still an active member in eight learned and professional societies, including the Small Woods Association, the British Ecological Society and the Royal Society of Biology; and a Fellow of both the Arboricultural Association and Institute of Chartered Foresters.

It is probably for the ‘Helliwell System’, his method for the Visual Amenity Valuation of Trees and Woodlands, that Rodney is best known among arboriculturists. First published in 1967, it remains the most widely recognised tool for evaluating the visual amenity provided by individual trees and/or woodland in Britain. Endorsed by the Tree Council and the Arboricultural Association, the Helliwell System has been used extensively in court cases, insurance claims and public inquiries. From 2001–10 he delivered annual training workshops on the use of the system.

To foresters Rodney is probably best known for his advocacy of Continuous Cover Forestry. He was a signatory to the declaration which set up the union of European foresters known as Pro Silva in 1989. He was also instrumental in the formation of a comparable body in Britain, the Continuous Cover Forestry Group (CCFG), in 1991. The objective of this group, now affiliated to Pro Silva, is to encourage structural and biological diversity of forests and woods by the use of silvicultural systems which avoid clear-felling and which work with natural processes as far as possible. His short book on Continuous Cover Forestry (2002) was a sell-out and a revised, updated edition was brought out in 2013.

Understanding how trees respond to light was one of Rodney’s main interests in later years. Rodney wanted to communicate a better understanding of the fundamental elements of how trees interact with light. Many of his most recent publications deal with this, and for anyone visiting his home in Wirksworth in later years there would invariably be a tour of the garden to see his latest seedling shade experiments and a walk through his recently purchased native woodland across the road from his house, where he was studying seedling growth under various conditions.

Rodney Helliwell was one of the great thinkers and doers in British arboriculture and forestry. He will be sorely missed.

Article taken from Issue 181 of the ARB Magazine.