A campaign to restore Britain’s lost rainforests has won backing from the Government in its post-Brexit plans for the countryside.
Around 20 per cent of Britain has a climate wet and warm enough for the creation of temperate rainforest, recognised by their abundance of mosses, lichens and epiphytes – plants that grow on other plants and are sustained by the amount of moisture in the air.
But only around 1 per cent of the country is still home to this “green cathedral”, according to Guy Shrubsole, a nature writer and campaigner, who has mapped the remaining temperate rainforest with the help of volunteers.
“Many of them were cut down centuries, if not thousands of years ago, by Bronze Age settlers, as they started to move through the countryside to clear land for farmland,” he said. “But some have been cut down as recently as the 20th century to turn into timber plantations.”
The best conditions for temperate rainforest, and where the remaining fragments can be found, are in the west of the UK, thanks to its combination of frequent rainfall and milder weather.
Bring back the UK’s rainforests
Among the remaining fragments includes Wistman’s Wood, in Devon, one of the country’s best known areas of rainforest, believed to be the origin of Dartmoor’s “Wisht Hounds” which inspired Arthur Conan Doyle.
Other areas where rainforest may once have occurred include the Lake District, parts of upland Wales, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor.
Increasing the amount of temperate rainforest could bring significant benefits in terms of the plant biodiversity, but also by protecting rare insect and animal species such as the Blue Ground Beetle, which is found on the edge of Dartmoor.
Mr Shrubsole’s campaign to bring back the country’s temperate rainforests has found support in Government. Its forthcoming £30m Big Nature Impact Fund explicitly backs efforts to “support and expand England’s temperate rainforests.”
“Temperate rainforests are globally important and highly biodiverse habitats. Defra is committed to expanding and protecting them,” said a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
“We have a variety of initiatives which will plant and regenerate trees in ecosystems which are home to England’s temperate rainforests and can expand and protect these precious habitats.”
Mr Shrubsole says that even in places with temperate rainforests, “it’s very hard for them to regrow because of other factors like over grazing, whether by livestock or by the number of deer that are in our countryside.”
But measures to tackle overgrazing, including fencing areas off to keep sheep out or culling deer numbers, could prove controversial.
‘Having rainforest is as British as a cup of tea’
He believes that increasing public awareness will lead to more public support for such measures.
Despite the fact that “having rainforest is as British as a cup of tea,” given the amount of rain in the country, a lot of people are not immediately aware of their existence, he said.
“Sometimes people have visited them and not realized what they’ve been seeing,” he said.
His own interest was first raised after moving to Devon last year.
“We’ve got such wonderful pockets of this temperate rainforest left along the valley of the Dart and elsewhere around the edges of Dartmoor.
“And it was just really an eye opener to visit many of these amazing places that are green all year round, because of the wealth of mosses and lichens that carpet them, making them sort of glow green, like a green cathedral,” he said.
“They really are quite different in feel to many woods in the drier parts of southeast of England, for example,” he added. “And they play host to this amazing diversity that is really unparalleled.”