Thoroughly British Rainforests

I have just been reading a book about rainforests. In Britain. Not the exotic tropical rainforests seen on television through which, drenched in sweat, you hack your way, attacked by insects and snakes as you wield your machete: but the gentler British version, temperate rainforest. These increasingly rare woods now occupy under 1% of the earth’s surface. No wonder they’re a best-kept secret.

Guy Shrubsole‘s The Lost Rainforests of Britain is an engaging and thoroughly absorbing account of a National Treasure of which most of us in Britain are completely unaware. Our temperate rainforests are spectacular woodlands with ancient, often stunted gnarled trees, draped and and bearded with mosses and lichens, and once marched across the British Isles from Dartmoor in the south to the north of Scotland – most particularly on the more sodden eastern seaboard. These days this unique habitat is increasingly under threat, and tiny pockets of such forest are now hard to find, and increasingly isolated and encroached upon.

Guy Shrubsole is the evangelist who seeks to protect and save them. To tell the story of this once widespread forest, he discusses geology, farming history, climate, Celtic Druids, the Romantic poets, JRR Tolkein – even Arthur Conan Doyle. He maps the eco-system in detail and calls for immediate political and public support: Shrubsole is a campaigner as well as a writer. This book may sound worthy, and therefore possibly dull. But it’s very readable, elegiac, amusing, entrancing and shocking by turn. It may turn out to be 2023’s Must Read.

None of these images is from a temperate rainforest: I haven’t – yet – visited one. But the picture shows somewhere I have been: the so-called Lud’s Church, a ferny gorge near Gradbach in Staffordshire, where the cool damp microclimate qualifies it as the very tiniest of rainforests.

I read this for the 2023 Gaia/Nature Reading Challenge

It fired my imagination, and reminded me that I may already have explored such a dim, green and shady place, crowded with trees clothed in soft green mosses, and draped with tangles of lichen, evocative of a spirit life with wraiths, witches and goblins. It wasn’t here in England, but in southern France, where even in the foothills of the Pyrenees it’s hot and often dry. I’ll post about that next …

Author: margaret21

I'm retired and living in North Yorkshire, where I walk as often as I can, write, volunteer, and travel as often as I can.

65 thoughts on “Thoroughly British Rainforests”

  1. Beautiful photos. Amazingly I’d never heard of that. Interesting book to keep on one’s bedside stack.

    With so much rain the forests must have once covered large parts of the islands. It’ll be lovely to see reconstructions of the ecology from when there were very few people there.

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  2. Beautiful photos. We get cool temperate rainforests on the eastern high-altitude areas but only in a very limited area here in Australia. they are beautiful, cool green spaces with relics from a very different age, like the antarctic beech, often found covered in green mosses, those forests are gorgeous, they always feel rather magical. This sounds like a great read!

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  3. Fascinating and I will look at our local woodlands differently now! We live near Thetford and Hatfield forest, both ancient woodland and there is something ethereal about both places. Your enthusiasm and wonderful review of the book has ensured it’s on my list of books to read this year! Thank you for sharing so eloquently here!

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  4. I noticed this title in passing so thank you for encouraging me to look at it more closely. Sounds a wonderful book. Your descriptions remind me of Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor which is filled with ancient, twisted and gnarled oaks. I’ve never visited it but we may be close by in a few days. Fingers crossed.

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  5. I never think of the UK forests being rainforests. With the rainfall, I should have expected that there were a lot scattered around the isle. I have heard of Shrubsole and his environmental work.

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    1. He sounds an all-round Good Egg. You’re not alone in thinking that we have no rainforests here. The proper sort are very much diminished, and entirely towards the wetter west.

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  6. That sounds really interesting. I read a blog post some time ago (wish I could remember whose!) about one of these pockets of temperate rainforest somewhere in Scotland. It looked beautiful, and that was the first time I considered that we might have any here. I’d love to visit one but meanwhile that gorge looks a very acceptable stand-in – I love your mossy shots and the bracket fungus 🙂

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    1. Shrubsole has quite a big focus on Scotland in his book. Many of the sites he mentions ate fairly inaccessible unless you’re very determined. I think you are though! There are lovely photos in this book too.

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  7. Brilliant post, thank you, and Guy Shrubsole’s informed passionate views cannot be amplified enough. And, yes let’s keep the surviving temperate rainforests protected. Of course sheep have been the target of the Rewilding lobby for a while. It’s surprising just how much sheep farming has shaped parts of the UK countryside degrading previously biodiverse areas to the almost barren monocultures we see today.

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      1. Yes, well it is less engaging since Mr Musk bought it, but I still find following the climate activists interesting and useful. Sadly, the BBC and printed press don’t seem to think it’s the major issue. ☹️

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      1. And … in Scotland, deer. There are far too many for the land to support, they have no predators, and as nobody owns them, no culling takes place. It’s a real problem.

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    1. Pigs are heroes. They disturb the land in a good way, moving seeds and roots around – when they’re allowed to forage freely. There’s nowt wrong with the other animals as such. It’s Man again, overproduction, unsuitable habitats … there’s not a big enough market for all the lamb and wool that’s produced. Grrr.

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  8. Sounds right up my street. But surely the west coast is wettest? You said “most particularly on the more sodden eastern seaboard.” I’m going to look if Waterstones has one in stock now.

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      1. I thought about the library, but this seems like a book I’d like to dip into and I have a £20 book token from my grandchildren just waiting for a book I fancy (got it in 2021)

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    1. What a coincidence. No, my interest didn’t flag during the second half. Yup, you’re in the half of the country to have at least some snippets. It feels wet enough over here too, but apparently not!

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      1. It’s been fascinating me since how one tree here and there might seem very rainforesty in amongst other more ordinary ones. I wish I knew why. I don’t think it’s age. Mum recently asked me why just some trees seem to get completely covered in ivy while their neighbours don’t and I didn’t know the answer to that either.

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