Where are British rainforests? What is a temperate rainforest, why they need protected - how to spot in the UK

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Temperate rainforests, “the jewels in the crown of the UK’s natural heritage”, used to cover a fifth of Britain’s land but now only cover about 0.5%.

A new map has been launched revealing the extent of Britain’s surviving fragments of temperate rainforest.

At one time rainforest covered a fifth of Britain’s land stretching through Cornwall, Devon, Wales, the Lake District and up the west coast of Scotland. Today only isolated scraps survive, covering about 0.5% of Britain.

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The Lost Rainforests of Britain campaign works to map and restore Britain’s lost rainforests. Guy Shrubsole, who runs the campaign, said the 18,870 hectares (46,628 acres) that survive in England could double in size within a generation if they were allowed to naturally regenerate.

The new map was compiled with the help of the public, scientists and geolocation specialists. It shows where the climate is right for rainforests to thrive in the UK, where current surviving temperate rainforests are and where there are different species of moss, liverworts and lichens which are good indicators of a temperate rainforest.

Where are British rainforests?

The map shows both Britain’s rainforest zone and fragments. The rainforest zone is where the climate is sufficiently rainy and mild for temperate rainforest to thrive. This region covers around 20% of Britain.

Lost Rainforests Of Britain

This map shows that more than half of Wales and nearly all of western Scotland, as well as large parts of Cornwall, the Lake District and other pockets north of Manchester, have suitable climates for temperate rainforest.

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Britain’s rainforest fragments are where the campaign believes Britain’s surviving fragments of temperate rainforest are located. It shows that rainforests today cover less than 1% of Britain. Areas where rainforests currently exist in Britain include Cornwall, Wales, the Lake District and the west coast of Scotland.

Lost Rainforests of Britain

What is a temperate rainforest?

Historically, temperate rainforests covered a much larger area of Britain. They were initially cleared in the Bronze Age and the medieval period. Some have been lost more recently due to forestry policies and overgrazing.

Temperate rainforests occur in mid-latitude, temperate zones, in places which receive heavy rainfall due to an ‘oceanic’ climate - where it is both very wet and sufficiently mild.

There are not very many places on the planet where temperate rainforest can flourish. It has to be wet, with about 1,400mm of rain a year. But it also has to be mild enough for plants to grow in mid-air.

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Temperate rainforests are very damp woodlands, so damp that plants grow on other plants.

These are fragile ecosystems growing in small patches across the world: America’s Pacific Northwest, Chile’s southern tip, parts of Japan, Korea and New Zealand. But they truly thrive on the wet Atlantic fringe of the British Isles.

The campaign’s research has identified multiple areas across Britain that have the conditions for temperate rainforest

Major temperate rainforest zones in Britain are:

  • Scotland – West Coast
  • Wales – Snowdonia and the Elenydd
  • England – West Country, Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire  

Our temperate rainforests, like their tropical cousins, harbour a huge wealth of flora and fauna. A 2018 report by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee said the UK has an “international responsibility” to protect its rainforests as vital habitats.

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Lost Rainforests of Britain

How to spot them in the UK

In the Tropics a rainforest is somewhere wet enough for the trees to have other plants growing on them. You can look for similar clues for rainforests in cooler climates.

Epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants, are the key indicator. The key is abundance. Anywhere wet enough to host a mass of lichens, mosses and fungi is a likely candidate.

Here are a few indicators of a temperate rainforest.

  • Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica): resembles a slab of raw meat and complete with dripping blood. It thrives on oaks in both dry woodlands and rainforests.
  • Octopus suckers (Collema fasciculare): a type of jelly lichen found in the rainforests of western Scotland.
  • Hazel gloves fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri): found only on decaying branches of rare hazelwoods on the Atlantic coast.
  • Lobaria virens: a green, shiny lichen marked by orange disks, thrives in the dampest parts of the Lake District, Wales, Scotland and the West Country.

Why should Britain’s rainforests be protected?

Campaign lead Guy Shrubsole said on The Lost Rainforests of Britain website, that “Britain is home to such a globally rare habitat” which “few people realise”.

He said: “Unfortunately, our temperate rainforest only remains in fragmented pockets, but this doesn’t have to be the case. The best way to bring back the lost rainforests is to better protect what we have left, and then allow these rainforests fragments to expand and regenerate naturally.

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“By introducing a Great British Rainforests Strategy and committing significant funding and protection the Government can bring back our lost temperate rainforests by supporting landowners to build a barrier around existing rainforest to stop overgrazing and allow it to regenerate.”

NationalWorld/Lost Rainforests of Britain

Lee Schofield, Wild Haweswater site manager, said temperate rainforests in Britain are “the jewels in the crown of the UK’s natural heritage, yet they face multiple threats.”

He added: “At RSPB Haweswater, we are working with landowner United Utilities to turn the tide. By changing grazing, employing cattle fitted with hi-tech GPS collars, collecting seeds and growing them in our on-site nursery and planting up bracken beds, our temperate rainforests, for the first time in centuries, will have the chance to reclaim lost ground.

“Over the coming decades, rainforest will begin feathering back up onto the fells, creeping out from gorges, spilling down from ledges, spreading from the refuges where they have been waiting for our relationship with nature to change.”

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The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs recently announced its £30 million Big Nature Impact Fund to back efforts to “support and expand England’s temperate rainforests.” However, The Lost Rainforests of Britain are still waiting for more details on the specifics of the funding and how much will be allocated for rainforest restoration and protection.

The government has previously said that much of the country’s temperate rainforest is protected and that it is committed to its safekeeping.

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