I didn’t really believe that Britain was a rainforest nation until I moved to Devon. Visiting woods around the edge of Dartmoor, in lost valleys and steep-sided gorges, I found places exuberant with life. I spotted branches dripping with mosses, festooned with lichens, liverworts and polypody ferns. I was enraptured. Surely, I thought, such lush places belonged in the tropics.
But it’s true. Few people realise that Britain harbours fragments of a globally rare habitat: temperate rainforest.
A temperate rainforest is a wood wet and mild enough for plants to grow on other plants. Temperate rainforest is actually rarer than the tropical variety: it covers just 1 per cent of the world’s surface. The temperate rainforest “biome”, or set of ecosystems, is strung across the globe, where oceanic currents bring warm winds and torrential downpours.
Rainforests exist along the north-west coast of the US and Canada; on the southern edge of Chile; in Japan and Korea; across Tasmania and New Zealand; and the western seaboard of Europe – particularly the Atlantic fringes of the British Isles.
Awestruck by what I found in Devon, I spent months delving into what’s known about these extraordinary places. During my research, I came across an astonishing map made by the ecologist Christopher Ellis showing the “bioclimatic zone” suitable for temperate rainforest in Britain – that is, the areas warm and damp enough for such a habitat to thrive.
This zone covers about 11 million acres (4.4 million hectares) of Britain – a staggering 20 per cent of the country. Once, this vast area would likely have been covered with rainforest; but no longer. The entire woodland cover of Britain today is just 13 per cent, and much of that is regimented plantations of conifer, planted for timber.
As I got used to the idea, it became obvious that rainforests belong here. We’re stereotypically obsessed by our rainy weather. How very British, then, to have rainforests. And, as I was to discover, half-forgotten memories of rainforests are woven into our myths and legends, and feature fleetingly in poetry and prose from some of our greatest writers. But why have we managed to so comprehensively excise Britain’s rainforests from our cultural memory?
Ellis’s map describes a damp arc across the west of the country. It’s at its most expansive on the wet west coast of Scotland; flows down through the Lake District and the Pennines; washes across Wales’s uplands, from Snowdonia to the Brecon Beacons; and soaks parts of the West Country, particularly Exmoor, Bodmin Moor and Dartmoor.
It’s hard to appreciate the awe and beauty of a temperate rainforest without visiting one yourself. Their rarity and remoteness mean most people in Britain have probably never seen one. My first, abiding memory is how lush and green it all was. All woods are green in summer, of course: but our rainforests are green all year round. Even when the leaves have fallen from the trees, they glow with a verdant luminosity.
I remember the earthy smell of fungus and leafmould, the distant roar of a river in spate, the drip-drip of falling rain. A visit to a rainforest feels like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their haloes of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness.
The trees that make up Britain’s rainforests are both familiar and strangely alien. The mainstay of our wet Atlantic woods are oak trees. Yet they’re quite unlike the tall, straight oaks of lowland England. By contrast, our rainforest oaks tend to be stunted and small, windblown and gnarled – hunched low to the ground to withstand the gales, their roots clutching at the thin upland soils.
What really marks out a temperate rainforest, however, isn’t the dominant species of tree, but the other plants growing on them. Epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants – are a key indicator. Epiphytic plants aren’t parasites; they simply use the trees as scaffolding, and soak up nutrients from the rain and dampness surrounding them. In Britain, the most common epiphytes are lichens, bryophytes – a grouping that includes mosses and liverworts – and ferns.
Many rainforest trees are so heavily garlanded with beardy lichens that they resemble Christmas trees hung with tinsel. Others are covered with a spreading filigree of liverworts, running like dark-brown veins over the skin of the bark. On some trunks, the moss grows like deep-pile carpet. Yet others sprout multicoloured banks of liverworts and lichens like coral reefs: purples and greens, silver and gold. Life is piled upon life.
Easier to spot from a distance are the polypody ferns. These beautiful, delicate plants love the damp shade and humidity of our western oakwoods. “Polypody”, meaning “many-footed”, refers to the fern’s method of spreading. It sends out horizontal roots called rhizomes that creep along branches, sending up fresh shoots at each interval. Occasionally you find other fern species growing epiphytically on trees, too. In some of our dampest woods, I’ve seen huge clumps of bracken protruding from standing trunks, where a spore has lodged itself in a knothole.
Surrounded by these seemingly primeval plants, I’m transported backwards to the time of the dinosaurs, over 65 million years ago, when ferns first evolved. Rainforests, then, remind us of when giants walked the Earth, when brachiosaurs lumbered through the swamps, eating the fronds of ferns amidst the spore-laden air.
Their usual weather, of course, is wet. Really wet. If you’re lucky enough to visit when the sun’s shining, you’re not really seeing them at their best. For most of the year, they drip continuously with moisture, drip from their canopies, drip from every branch and leaf and stem. The rain runs through, along footpaths that become streams in winter torrents. You’ll return from a visit soaked from head to toe, feeling all the more alive for it.
Not only are they extraordinary places to experience, providing a feast for the senses. They’re also a treasure trove of biodiversity. And the carbon that our rainforest trees are busily soaking up – not just in their trunks, but also via the epiphytic plants that festoon their branches – make them some of our best allies in the fight against the climate crisis.
This loss of cultural memory, this great forgetting that we once had rainforests, is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to the phenomenon that ecologists call “shifting baseline syndrome”: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses. What appears to us today as a “green and pleasant land” is, in reality, a desert compared to the glory of what once existed.
Not everyone has forgotten, of course. Part of the job of environmentalists is to see the damage wrought by humanity, no matter how much it might hurt to do so. Dozens of pioneering botanists, bryologists, lichen specialists and woodland ecologists have explored these habitats over the decades, publishing academic papers and raising the alarm about the ongoing threats they face. And yet … Britain’s rainforests remain under-recognised, unmapped and largely unacknowledged by politicians and a wider public.
I read every study I could find voraciously, following in the footsteps of those who’ve explored our rainforests before. But as I went further, the footsteps became fainter, the path overgrown. Why was there no proper map of where Britain’s temperate rainforests survive? The more experts I spoke to, the less certain I became that this precious habitat was fully understood. So I decided to start a blog, “Lost Rainforests of Britain”, to try to drum up public support for protecting and restoring these amazing places. I created a Google Map to gather examples of where fragments cling on.
I put a call-out on Twitter for people to send in photos of potential rainforest sites they’d visited. I was overwhelmed by the response. Hundreds of people sent submissions, deluging me with photos of the beautiful wet woodlands that they knew and loved; trees covered in mosses and ferns, thriving in hidden valleys and inaccessible gorges. My email inbox overflowed with messages expressing surprise and delight at the realisation that the woods they’d been walking in turned out to be temperate rainforest.
It felt like I had struck a chord. Perhaps it was just curiosity at the fact that we have rainforests here in Britain; perhaps it was part of the wider public yearning to reconnect to nature, brought about by months locked down in our homes. But maybe this subject also taps into something deeper in the national psyche: the sense that, through our destructive actions, we have lost something profoundly important from the natural world.
In restoring them, we might yet restore a missing part of ourselves. Because our rainforests aren’t irrevocably lost. Fragments survive. In some parts of Britain, rainforests still thrive. Far from being dying relics from some bygone era, they’re living ecosystems – growing, regenerating and spreading, whenever they’re given half a chance. As Jeff Goldblum memorably intones in Jurassic Park: “Life … finds a way.”
This is an edited extract of The Lost Rainforests of Britain, by Guy Shrubsole, which is available now in paperback (William Collins, £10.99). For more information, visit lostrainforestsofbritain.org or follow the author on Twitter (@guyshrubsole).
Updated: May 19, 2023, 6:27 PM