Lost Rainforests of Britain

Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole

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When we think of rainforests, most of us probably think of the Amazon and other tropical locations far away from the UK. But this fascinating and eye-opening book by campaigner Guy Shrubsole introduces something even rarer: temperate rainforests. Incredibly, the damp, fairly mild climate of the western fifth of Britain should be perfect for this habitat. Yet only tiny pockets of it survive here. After moving to Devon, Shrubsole discovers some of these pockets on his doorstep and sets out to find out more about them. The result is a book that delves into natural history, climate, land ownership, history and much more.

What Are Temperate Rainforests?

Because they are so rare, many of us aren’t even aware temperate rainforests exist. Yet we all know about tropical ones. This is largely because accelerating rates of deforestation in the Amazon have led to multiple high-profile campaigns to save these tropical ecosystems over the years. As some of the most biodiverse places on the planet, places like the Amazon are the poster children of environmental campaigning. Their temperate counterparts, however, are even rarer, covering just 1% of the world’s land surface. Shrubsole himself admits that prior to his move to Devon, he had little idea the UK had its own rainforests. Once he realised that we do indeed have our own, he determined to find out what they are. This in turn led to him wondering why we don’t have more of them.

Fearnoch temperate rainforests
Temperate rainforests are full of mosses and lichens

Essentially, temperate rainforests are woods that are damp and mild enough for plants to grow directly on other plants. This is instead of growing on soil or a similar substrate. These tree-growing plants are called epiphytes, and get all their nutrients from the air, rain and any accumulated matter around them. Perfect conditions exist in places with an ‘oceanic’ climate, where the sea supplies warm winds and copious amounts of rain. In the UK, the Gulf Stream provides both where it meets our western coast. Temperate rainforests also exist in the Pacific Northwest of North America, Japan, Korea, Tasmania, New Zealand and the south of Chile. Shrubsole discovers that 20% of Britain actually has the right conditions to support temperate rainforest. He finds this fitting in a country that often seems obsessed with rain. Worryingly, though, total woodland of any type only covers 13% of our island. Even worse, much of this is non-native forestry monoculture.

Denizens of Green Cathedrals

Unlike species such as mistletoe, epiphytes aren’t parasites, and they don’t steal nutrients from the trees they grow on. Instead, they simply use them as a surface to attach to and get all their sustenance from the air and rain. Here in the UK, these epiphytes are usually lichens (not actually plants), mosses, liverworts and ferns. The more of these organisms you see growing on a tree, the more likely you have found a temperate rainforest. Some of the rainforests Shrubsole visits contain trees completely shrouded in lichens and mosses to the point the tree itself is barely visible underneath, or as he puts it, life ‘is piled on life.’ This means that rainforests are always green, even in winter when the trees’ leaves are gone. He aptly compares them to green cathedrals.

Lichen Fearnoch temperate rainforests
Even in winter, rainforests appear green due to the moss and lichen

According to Plantlife, approximately 500 different species of lichen live in the UK’s rainforests. Specialties include tree lungwort, a wonderfully lush lichen that is extremely sensitive to air pollution. There are probably over 150 moss and liverwort species, as well. Polypody ferns commonly grow on rainforest trees. The damp conditions also support a range of other ferns on the woodland floor. Incredibly, the build-up of debris on tree branches can even produce enough soil for trees to grow on top of trees. In addition, some of our most charismatic birds often live in the UK’s temperate rainforests, including the wood warbler, pied flycatcher and redstart.

Tree lungwort temperate rainforests
Tree lungwort lichen is a rainforest specialty
Pied flycatcher
Pied flycatchers prefer our wetter, western rainforests

A temperate rainforest’s tree species vary depending on where it is. In Devon, sessile oaks often dominate although they are usually twisted, stunted versions of the large, majestic individuals seen elsewhere. Elsewhere, there might be holly, rowan, hazel and ash, while birch is by far the commonest species in Scotland. Crucially, it isn’t the dominant tree species that makes a rainforest a rainforest, but its ability to support epiphytes.

Oak and ferns
Polypody ferns are another feature of temperate rainforests

Losing Our Rainforests

As well as attempting to map Britain’s remaining pockets of rainforest, Shrubsole aims to find out how we lost so many of them. Using a variety of sources including ancient woodland maps, records of indicator species and climatic information, he finds that there are probably only 333,000 acres left at most. This amounts to half a percent of Britain’s land surface. And there may be even less than this. Considering it may once have covered a fifth of the country, this is a huge loss. With it, we have not only lost vast numbers of trees, ferns, mosses and lichens, but also a large part of our cultural heritage. None of these losses were accidental, though; human choices have actively removed them. Sheep, forestry plantations, deer, invasive plant species and the fragmentation caused by these threats are the biggest causes of rainforest loss in the UK.

Sheep are a major threat to rainforest regeneration

In Wales, the biggest threat is sheep. Sheep outnumber people in the principality by 3:1. Interestingly, although many farmers see them as part of Wales’ heritage, they were only brought to Wales by Cistercian monks in the 1100s and before that, forests would have dominated. As of 2022, the UK as a whole has approximately 33 million sheep, all munching away and preventing sapling growth. This means no regeneration can occur and the result is further fragmentation. In Scotland, deer and the highly invasive rhododendron are additional problems. Deer numbers in Scotland are artificially high. This is because of their importance to shooting estates, and they too prevent saplings from growing. Rhododendron, meanwhile, spreads rapidly and quickly shades out any saplings trying to grow.

Red deer
In Scotland, artificially high numbers of red deer are an issue

A Future for Rainforests

Ultimately, Britain’s Lost Rainforests is a call to arms. Shrubsole doesn’t want us just to wonder at these amazing ecosystems while quietly lamenting their loss. He wants us to join in his campaign to help map and save surviving fragments and promote regeneration. A major part of this is campaigning for land ownership and access reform. This is something Shrubsole has been involved in for some time. Who owns the land and how they manage it is a huge factor in rainforest history and will play a massive role in their future. At present, too few people own too much land in the UK and measure it solely by its productivity, whether that is in sheep, deer or tree numbers. Shrubsole rightly points out that it is extremely hypocritical of us criticising other nations for destroying tropical rainforests when we do nothing to stop our own forests disappearing.

Polypody ferns
Polypody ferns growing on an oak

He also acknowledges that there are some contradictions between campaigning for the right to roam and the necessary enclosure of land if it is to be protected from sheep and deer. There are rarely any easy answers when it comes to conservation. Yet saving our rainforests is important. Temperate rainforests support a disproportionate number of species for their size so can help fight biodiversity loss. They also capture and store carbon, not only via their plants but in the soils created by lichens and mosses growing on trees. Rainforests can also help prevent flooding.

Salen woods
These woods on Mull in Argyll are in the oceanic climatic zone

Cause for Optimism

Happily, there is some hope. Shrubsole’s book has undoubtedly already raised awareness of Britain’s temperate rainforests. In addition, regeneration and restoration projects in Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man have begun, or are about to begin. Key to rainforest survival will not just be preserving any isolated fragments but promoting regeneration. Shrubsole quotes a recent study that found that if grazing is controlled, ancient oak woods regenerate out to 100 – 150 metres in just 23 years. Surely similar results can be achieved if grazing controls are applied to our rainforests. It will take some major shifts in perspective, land management and policy to rescue Britain’s rainforests. We also need to understand what it is we have lost. However, this wonderful book ends on a heartening note of cautious optimism.

Further Reading

Packed with lots of additional information, the Lost Rainforests of Britain website includes maps, campaign news, identification resources and more. The book itself recently won the 2023 James Cropper Wainwright Prize for Writing on Conservation.

Shrubsole’s previous book focuses on finding out who actually owns land in England. The ruling classes have been obtaining land for centuries. They are also extremely good at covering up how they got hold of it. Shrubsole sets out to uncover some of this history whilst campaigning for greater access to land that he feels is in too few hands.

Although he interviews some of its proponents, Guy Shrubsole is honest in his book about the fact many farmers and land managers oppose rewilding. Eoghan Daltun, however, is firmly in the pro-rewilding camp. His book documents his mission to allow a 73-acre farm in West Cork to return to a state of temperate rainforest. It, too, is a call to arms. Daltun implores us to reconnect with and change the way we view and treat the natural world around us.

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