Life finds a way: in search of England’s lost, forgotten rainforests

Gnarled oak trees in Wistman’s Wood, an eight-acre fragment of temperate rainforest in Devon.

Much of Britain’s temperate rainforest has been destroyed – but it can sometimes regenerate. The race is on to map what survives and restore what we can
by Guy Shrubsole

ew people realise that England has fragments of a globally rare habitat: temperate rainforest. I didn’t really believe it until I moved to Devon last year and started visiting some of these incredible habitats. Temperate rainforests are exuberant with life. One of their defining characteristics is the presence of epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants, often in such damp and rainy places. In woods around the edge of Dartmoor, in lost valleys and steep-sided gorges, I’ve spotted branches dripping with mosses, festooned with lichens, liverworts and polypody ferns.

You may have heard of England’s most famous fragment of temperate rainforest: Wistman’s Wood, in the middle of Dartmoor (pictured above and below). With its gnarled and stunted oaks, its remote location marooned within a sheep-nibbled moorscape, and attendant tales of spectral hounds that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, it has an outsize reputation for somewhere so tiny in size: eight acres – about four football pitches.

Temperate rainforests, however, once covered a much larger swathe of England, and even larger parts of Wales and Scotland. A map produced by the academic Christopher Ellis in 2016 identified the “bioclimatic zone” suitable for temperate rainforest in Britain – that is, the areas where it’s warm and damp enough for such a habitat to thrive. This zone covers about 1.5m acres of England – around 5% of the country. For comparison, the entire woodland cover of England today is just 10%, and much of that is conifer plantations.

Lichen growing on a tree.

We have, in other words, lost a lot of our rainforests. I grew up with the Save the Rainforests movement of the 1980s and 90s, spearheaded in Britain by groups such as Friends of the Earth, which campaigned to stop deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. When I was five years old, my mum organised a Save the Rainforests fundraiser; we painted a mural for our local library of colourful toucans, parrots and rainforest trees. Halting tropical deforestation remains utterly essential, a task made more vital by the rise of anti-green populists such as Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. But I did not realise growing up that we had already destroyed our own rainforests here in England.Advertisement

Many of England’s rainforests were lost long ago, to the axes of Bronze Age farmers and medieval tin miners. Others were lost more recently to well-meaning but profoundly misguided forestry policies, which led to the felling of ancient, shrunken oaks in favour of fast-growing Sitka spruce. And in many places where rainforests would naturally flourish, overgrazing by sheep – whose sharp teeth hungrily eat up every sapling – has prevented their return.

But as I read with horror about this destruction, I started to realise that more fragments of our temperate rainforest have survived to the present day than I first thought. It wasn’t just Wistman’s Wood: rainforests cling on, too, along the whole valley of the Dart river (as the poet Alice Oswald reminds us, dartis Brythonic Celtic for “oak”), the Bovey and Teign rivers, and far beyond.

Some of this is simply due to the lie of the land. At Holne Chase, a rocky outcrop on the Dart where kayakers love to navigate the rapids, the scree-strewn cliffs and piles of boulders are too steep even for sheep. Oak, birch and holly flourish instead, sprouting from nooks and crevices between the rocks, carpeted in verdant mosses and that staple of temperate rainforest, the string-of-sausages lichen.

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