In search of Britain’s lost rainforests

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Growing up in a farmhouse in the middle of Devon, you were very aware of rain: lots of it, sometimes coming in horizontally, more often a pervasive mizzle hanging in the still air. You were also aware of forests. But I don’t remember anyone ever putting the two things together: it turns out I was living on the fringes of a British rainforest.

It had occurred to me there was something special about the perma-damp woodland in the steep valleys around the farm near Tiverton, some of which had a primeval feel. There you found ferns, mosses and fungi clinging to stunted trees, which leaned at crazy angles before finally falling and rotting into the soil on the forest floor.

But a rainforest? A remarkable new book by Guy Shrubsole has completely changed the way many people look at the temperate woodlands that remain in parts of western Britain, fragments of which survive as havens of flora and fauna, as well as eerily evocative reminders of how much of the country used to look.

For many, Britain’s woodland, particularly its oak forests, gives the country a sense of home and national identity, a connection to its distant past. Druids practised rituals in oak groves, ancient kings wore crowns of oak leaves and the tree is a national symbol of strength. Rainforests, hunched and twisted against inclement weather and often rooted in poor soil, combine oak, holly, birch, rowan and other trees in a fairytale mix.

Guy Shrubsole and George Parker (seated) at Lustleigh Cleave in Dartmoor National Park: Shrubsole’s new book makes the case for preserving Britain’s ancient rainforests
Guy Shrubsole and George Parker (seated) at Lustleigh Cleave in Dartmoor National Park: Shrubsole’s new book makes the case for preserving Britain’s ancient rainforests

Today, it’s that idea of home that Shrubsole is trying to preserve. He wants to put temperate rainforests — also found in places with oceanic climates, such as the northwestern US, Canada, Chile, Japan, New Zealand and Tasmania — on a par with their better-known cousins in the tropics. “Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president-elect] has a rainforest alliance of tropical rainforest nations,” he says. “I think temperate rainforests should be part of that too.”

The author of The Lost Rainforests of Britain also wants to restore a landscape he says once covered a fifth of the country but now accounts for just 0.5 per cent. Centuries of timber extraction and sheep farming have left the rainforest clinging on, often in remote valleys, a delight to those lucky enough to find them.

And that’s why we are here in Lustleigh, on the eastern side of Dartmoor National Park, where the rainforest is making a bit of a comeback, edging back up the ravine of the River Bovey. Shrubsole, putting on his walking boots outside the Cleave Inn, can hardly wait to get out into what he lovingly calls his “fungus-eats-fungus world”.

Shrubsole’s work, the Sunday Times science book of the year, has taken a landscape that exists under our noses and brought it to national media attention. It is, I venture, a clever bit of marketing to call these scraps of woodland, some of them ancient, “rainforests”. He bridles slightly, arguing the term is both accurate and evocative.

He cites a 1991 paper on rainforests in the Americas, which said a temperate rainforest should have more than 1,400mm of rain a year, a little more than twice the average for London. But there was an important proviso: 10 per cent or more of that rain had to fall in the summer, to avoid the woodland drying out. You also need mild but not hot weather. Places such as Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Lancashire and the west of Scotland fit the bill.

“You don’t get so much attention if you talk about restoring W17 woodland,” Shrubsole says, referring to the official designation of upland, mossy, deciduous forest.

Rainforests may once have covered 20 per cent of Britain; today they account for about 0.5 per cent

Bright-eyed and endlessly enthusiastic about his subject, the 37-year-old studied modern history at Oxford and is impatient with conservationists who he says can be “needlessly exclusive and technical in their language”. I hadn’t realised, but my brother Harry (who loves a bit of lichen) had sent pictures of the mossy and magical woodland around our Devon farmhouse to Shrubsole to help him with his mapping exercise, part of his research for the book.

Looking back on it now, I can see how special it was, although trudging up the muddy farm lane to catch the school bus in the morning sometimes blunted your enthusiasm for the local woodland.

But it was an intrinsic part of our teen years. Our stepdad worked as a forester who sold logs locally and we’d sometimes help him out, lugging timber out of dense forests, the soft rain dripping from your nose, brambles tearing at exposed skin. Any logs left over were used to heat our own house and — if we were lucky — warm enough water for a bath.

One of the features of the local forests was the vast array of ferns but I suspect few Devonians know that in the 19th century the county became the centre of a weird Victorian fad: “fernmania”. Shrubsole reveals how Devon became known as the “fern county”, as people descended from across the country to admire or dig up the delicate plants. A relic of this obsession is the ferny decoration on the top of a custard cream biscuit.

Lustleigh forest
Centuries of timber extraction and sheep farming have left just rainforest fragments in remote valleys, such as here in Lustleigh

In what Shrubsole reckons must have been one of the earliest environmental regulations introduced in Britain, Devon county council passed a “fern law” in 1906, banning the digging up of the plants. The fine, £5, would be worth £600 today. The author says he was unable to establish whether it is still in force. Fernmania did not survive the first world war.

Shrubsole would never consider digging up a fern but a walk through the forest with him reveals a passionate hatred for the rhododendron, an invasive species that — along with sheep — he holds partly responsible for the assault on the rainforest.

“I dig them up, put them in the car, burn them when I get home,” the mild-mannered Shrubsole says. I suspect he wishes he could think of some even more grisly end for the plant.

Sheep, which eat the saplings of oaks and other trees that live in the rainforest, have stripped bare large parts of the country. Indeed, Shrubsole argues that the traditional image of Dartmoor — a wild, grassy landscape punctuated by granite tors — is little more than an ecological desert, while the forest on the moor’s fringes teems with life. Someone has perched a sheep’s skull on an old wall, perhaps a warning to the moor’s woolly inhabitants not to enter Lustleigh Cleave.

It turns out that, like me, Shrubsole and our Dartmoor-based photographer Nicholas White both did the Ten Tors expedition as teenagers, a rite of passage involving camping and yomping up to 55 miles across the open moor, eating Pot Noodles and dodging treacherous mires and bogs. This is the wild terrain that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles: Shrubsole invites his readers to look in a different direction.

“Look at this — stick of the day!” he exults, as he picks up a scrap of wood laden with Usnea articulata, or “string-of-sausages” lichen — a grey-green tangle, threaded with miniature sausage-shaped growths. Walking with Shrubsole is intriguing, although I’m starting to wonder if we’ll get back to the Cleave Inn in time for lunch.

Dashing down a hill, he shouts back: “I always have to stop to look at hazels to see if they’ve got any hazel gloves fungus,” referring to a globally rare species found in the temperate rainforest.

The forest is a wonderland of crooked trees tumbling down to the River Bovey, eking out nutrients from the thin soil, their branches supporting myriad rare specimens. Some trees are so thick with lichen that, Shrubsole notes in his book, they sometimes resemble Christmas trees hung with tinsel.

Epiphytes — plants that grow on other trees — are key indicators of rainforests. But I had not realised that the moss, ferns and lichen adorning the trees of the forest are not parasites but are using the trees simply as scaffolding, absorbing nutrients from the rain and dampness around them. If you visit this forest you will need a good map: the wooden signposts around here are covered in lichen and are rotting away in the damp; paths lead to abandoned farmsteads and hut circles, then disappear.

Usnea articulata, or ‘string-of-sausages’ lichen
Usnea articulata, or ‘string-of-sausages’ lichen

Someone has perched a sheep’s skull on an old wall, perhaps as a warning to the moor’s woolly inhabitants
Someone has perched a sheep’s skull on an old wall, perhaps as a warning to the moor’s woolly inhabitants

Shrubsole invites me to rub my fingers on some innocuous-looking fungus called Sticta and then laughs: “Your fingers will smell of rotting fish for the rest of the day.”

Shrubsole grew up near Newbury in Berkshire, the son of environmentalists who happened to be living on the front line of the cold war in the 1980s — the US Greenham Common air base was nearby, where cruise missiles were stationed. There also happened to be a controversial bypass around the town planned at the same time. Newbury became the epicentre for a counterculture and the young Guy was caught up in it. When he was five, his mother hosted a “save the rainforest” party.

His interest in conservation took him to mid-Wales and then down to Devon. He loves the rainforest in Lustleigh Cleave, one of the few places in Britain where the trees are starting to reclaim their old territory, thanks to changing agricultural practices. Vitally, rainforest needs to be fenced off to stop sheep nibbling away the saplings. Then the heroes of Shrubsole’s book — the squirrels and jays that pick up acorns, bury them and sometimes forget them — can do their work and start to expand the forest.

Back in the Cleave Inn, over a pint, he says many local farmers have been supportive of his campaign to expand the rainforest by allowing wet, boggy margins of their land to grow trees. He says the west cannot lecture countries with tropical rainforest over the clearance of their woodland if it does not look after its own temperate forests.

Shrubsole (left) and Parker consult old pictures and maps
Shrubsole (left) and Parker consult old pictures and maps

In a dream world, he says, a generous Financial Times reader would stump up a million pounds to buy up land to help expand the Lustleigh forest, but he says he has a simpler aim. “I would love to turn people into amateur botanists. Go out and look for rainforest and send us a photo of what you see,” Shrubsole says.

He would also love to see the restoration of the rainforest firmly embedded in government policy. Last year, the government declared that “temperate rainforests are globally important and highly biodiverse habitats” and pledged to defend and expand them.

But Shrubsole, walking out of the Cleave Inn and into the weak December sun, says this is only the start and that protecting the rainforests — long seen as someone else’s problem — starts at home.

George Parker is the FT’s political editor

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