Did you know that there are rainforests right here in the UK? We’re not talking about the tropical kind, but ‘temperate’ rainforests which thrive in places with heavy rainfall. No surprise that the UK makes the perfect climate!. Our very own green and pleasant land is home to some small fragments of these habitats which are as important for carbon sequestration and biodiversity as tropical rainforests, but which are now sadly very rare.
Photo: The Lost Rainforests of England blog
Just 1% of the planet has a suitable climate for temperate rainforest – high levels of rain, mild temperatures, and clean air. The UK’s climate meant large swathes of England, Wales, and Scotland were once covered by these woodlands. Unfortunately, much of this has now been lost. Many areas were lost during the Bronze Age and more recently as a result of land being converted to timber production, overgrazing, and invasive species. Climate change, air pollution, and pests and diseases have also taken their toll.
What’s being done to save UK rainforests?
In Scotland, as little as 30,000 hectares of this habitat remains, just 2% of total woodland cover and only 1/5 of the area which has the right climatic conditions suitable for rainforest. In Wales, nearly half of all woodland cover is made up of conifers, planted for timber in place of native species.
However, in recent years, both Scotland and Wales have begun campaigns to protect and restore their temperate rainforests. In Scotland, the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest, a coalition of 20 major conservation organisations are working to restore and enlarge large-scale areas of rainforest, with 2 projects underway and a further 4 in the pipeline. Celtic Rainforests Wales are performing the same work across 4 areas of West Wales.
Unfortunately, there has been little work on this to date in England. A 2016 map created by academic Christopher Ellis showed that around 5% of England (approximately 1.5 million acres) has the right climatic conditions for temperate rainforest, yet currently only tiny fragments can be found. In fact, only 10% of the whole country has any woodland cover at all, and much of this is conifer plantations.
The Lost Rainforests of England
To try and combat this, environmentalist Guy Shrubsole has launched a new blog ‘Lost Rainforests of England’, which aims to map the remaining rainforest areas with help from the public who are encouraged to report relevant areas near to them. The ambitious citizen science project has already identified 100 potential sites, from the Lake District to Exmoor to the Yorkshire Dales.
Photo: Lost Rainforests of England map
The remaining fragments of rainforest can often be found in valleys and inaccessible places, which have avoided livestock grazing and human activity. Two of the most well-known areas, both located in Dartmoor, are Wistman’s Wood, famous as the inspiration for Hound of the Baskervilles and only a tiny 8 acres in size, and Lustleigh Cleave, a small area that has been left to regenerate with no grazing or burning and is now thriving. Here you will find plenty of ‘epiphytes’ (plants that grow on other plants such as mosses, lichens, and ferns), which are one of the identifying features of temperate rainforest.
The next stage for the project is to target areas to protect and restore. This will be a complex process, involving working with the government and landowners to agree ways to set land aside and stop overgrazing in order to allow it to return to a rainforest state. This will likely require purchases of land in order to protect it, or the creation of incentives for landowners to do so. It is hoped that the government will use the forthcoming England Tree Strategy to lay out some proposals for this.
We have a unique opportunity to lead the way this year, with the UK welcoming world leaders for both the G7 summit in June and COP26 in November. We must use this chance to showcase world-leading strategies for forest protection and restoration and to encourage others to follow.
If you know of any areas of temperate rainforest in England you can submit them to The Lost Rainforests website to be included on their map.
The consultation on England’s Tree Strategy has now closed but you can still support the organisations pushing for woodland protection and restoration, such as Rewilding Britain, The Woodland Trust, and Friends of the Earth.