Life Finds a Path: In Search of England’s Lost and Forgotten Rainforests | Trees and forests
Few people realize 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 amazing habitats. Temperate rainforests are teeming with life. One of their defining characteristics is the presence of epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants, often in such humid and rainy places. In the woods on the edge of Dartmoor, in lost valleys and rugged gorges, I spotted branches dripping with moss, scalloped with lichens, liverworts and polypod ferns.
You may have heard of England’s most famous piece of temperate rainforest: Wistman’s Wood, in the middle of Dartmoor. With its gnarled and stunted oaks, its remote location in a landscape of moorland nibbled by sheep, and related tales of spectral dogs that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, he has a disproportionate reputation for such a small place: eight acres – about four football fields.
Temperate rainforests, however, once covered a much larger part of England, and even larger parts of Wales and Scotland. A map produced by academic Christopher Ellis in 2016 identified the “bioclimatic zone” suitable for temperate rainforest in Britain, that is, areas where it is hot and humid enough for such habitat to develop. This area covers around 1.5 million acres of England – around 5% of the country. For comparison, the all England’s forest cover today is only 10%, and much of it is coniferous plantations.
In other words, we have lost a large part of our rainforests. I grew up with the The Save the Rainforests movement of the 80s and 90s, led in Britain by groups such as Friends of the Earth, which campaigned to stop deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. When I was five, my mom organized a Save the Rainforests fundraiser; we painted a mural for our local library of colorful toucans, parrots and rainforest trees. Stopping tropical deforestation remains absolutely essential, a task made more vital by the rise of anti-green populists such as Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil. But I didn’t realize growing up that we had already destroyed our own rainforests here in England.
Many of England’s rainforests were lost long ago, to the axes of Bronze Age farmers and medieval tin miners. Others have been lost more recently to well-intentioned but deeply misguided forest policies, which have led to the felling of old shrunken oaks in favor of the fast-growing Sitka spruce. And in many places where tropical forests would flourish naturally, overgrazing by sheep – whose sharp teeth devour any young trees – has prevented their return.
But as I read this destruction in horror, I began to realize that more fragments of our temperate rainforest had survived to this day than I initially thought. It wasn’t just Wistman’s Wood: rainforests also cling to the entire Dart River Valley (as poet Alice Oswald recalls, dart is Brythonic Celtic for “oak”), the Bovey and Teign rivers, and far beyond.
Part of it is simply due to the lie of the earth. AT Holne Chase, a rocky outcrop on the Dart where kayakers love to navigate rapids, scree-strewn cliffs and rock piles are too steep even for sheep. Oak, birch, and holly bloom instead, growing in corners and crevices between rocks, carpeted with verdant mosses and that temperate rainforest staple, sausage lichen.
In other places, the temperate rainforest not only survives, but thrives. In Lustleigh Cleave, a craggy township on the Bovey River that was barren pasture on Ordnance Survey maps a century ago, several hundred acres of rainforest has miraculously regenerated. A The painting from the top of Lustleigh Cleave dated 1820 shows it to be bare rocks, a shepherd grazing his flock at its base. When I visited Lustleigh last year, the same place was so obscured by trees that it was unrecognizable. Common grazing rights appear to have been abandoned, along with the old practice of swallowing – burning gorse and purple moorland that line swaths of Dartmoor – allowing the woods to return.
Even Wistman’s Wood, so often described as a stunted and dying relic of the Ice Age, has grown significantly since the end of the Victorian period. Comparing photographs of the wood taken when Jack the Ripper terrorized London with current Google Earth images, we see habitat that has grown considerably, both in extent and in tree size. Our forgotten rainforests are not just a pristine lost world: they also live, breathe and reproduce. Like Jeff Goldblum memorably intones in Jurassic Park: “Life … finds a way.”
Passionate about these discoveries, I recently decided to create a blog, England’s Lost Tropical Forests, and tweeted a request for others to add to a map surviving fragments of the country’s temperate rainforest. I was bowled over by the response: Within a month of launching the blog had over 10,000 views, and I was sent almost 100 potential rainforest sites, from the Lake District to Exmoor, The Valleys The forgotten Yorkshire Dales on the isolated coasts of the Devon coast. If you think you have found a temperate rainforest near you and would like it added to the map, please send me your quotes and tweet me your photos.
Mapping what survives is only the first part of this project. The next phase is to attempt to restore our lost rainforests to something approaching their former glory. This process is already underway in Scotland and Wales, where charities and alliances have formed to protect and rejuvenate their diminished rainforest habitats. (England, as always, seems to be lagging behind.)
I have no illusions that such an endeavor would be easy: in fact, it could be the work of a lifetime. It would be necessary to identify not only the surviving fragments of the rainforest, but also who owns them and the earth that surrounds them; persuade the various landowners, sharecroppers and commoners to stop overgrazing these lands, reserving them for the rainforest regenerate naturally; and identifying sources of finance to either encourage farmers to do this or buy the land outright.
The government has a major role to play in restoring England’s lost rainforests. He could use his future tree strategy for England to unlock funds for such a venture. He could task the Forestry Commission, which caused such destruction on our temperate rainforests in the 20th century, to repair it in the 21st century. And he could take the opportunity of next G7 summit in Carbis Bay, Cornwall – which happens to happen right next to a fragment of temperate rainforest – to engage the rich world in renewing our damaged ecosystems. This would repel wreckers like the President of Brazil, who refuse to curb deforestation by pointing out that the wealthy Westerners have benefited from it for centuries. If we are to do this, it will take a grassroots movement – not only to save the Amazon rainforests, but also to restore the rainforest at home.
So the next time you go for a walk in the woods and spot ferns growing on branches, lichens growing like coral, and tree trunks bubbling with moss, you might be walking through one of the rainforests. forgotten of this country.
If you want to get involved, go to: lostrainforestsofengland.org