Take action: help map the lost rainforests of Britain

This post is by Guy Shrubsole. An earlier version referred only to England; this has been updated to reflect the project’s extension to cover the whole of Britain.

Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, pictured above, is easily the most famous example of temperate rainforest in England. But it’s far from the only fragment in existence.

Very few people know that Britain once supported large expanses of temperate rainforest, in a swathe across the western upland parts of the country – from the west coast of Scotland, down through the Lake District, Pennines, Dales and Forest of Bowland, via a great swathe of central Wales, to Dartmoor, Exmoor and Bodmin Moor in the Westcountry. They were felled by Bronze Age settlers, medieval tin-miners, Victorian charcoal-makers, and in the modern era by foresters who replaced them with high-yield conifers for timber. Blanket bog formed over large areas of the uplands, deterring the return of dense woodland, and overgrazing by sheep has prevented their regrowth on the hillsides and in the cloughs.

Yet despite all this, pockets of temperate rainforest cling on in Britain today. They huddle in lost valleys and sprout from piles of scree where boulders prevent even the surest-footed sheep from nibbling fresh saplings. What’s more, they could yet spread further, if we give them the space to grow and protect them from overgrazing. Indeed, as I’ll show in later posts on this blog, some of Britain’s rainforests are already expanding through natural regeneration.

The trouble is, no-one seems to have comprehensively mapped where Britain’s last, lost rainforests still survive and thrive today. A 2015 book by Clifton Bain, The Rainforests of Britain and Ireland, is an excellent guide, but even it misses many fragments of rainforest that I know to exist, having chanced upon them. It’s important for us to know where they are – both to protect what’s left, and to help coordinate efforts to restore them.

And that’s where you, dear reader, come in. Can we, together, map Britain’s lost rainforests? I’ve started the job with the map below, which has two layers:

  • A layer showing the ‘temperate rainforest bioclimatic zone’ – this uses a dataset kindly sent to me by Christopher Ellis, author of a 2016 peer-reviewed paper modelling where temperate rainforest is most likely to occur in Britain (I’ve combined it with a 5km x 5km OS grid).
  • Known fragments of temperate rainforest that I’ve been able to visit and photograph.

But I know there’s lots more temperate rainforest out there waiting to be discovered, and that needs adding to this map. Can you help? If you know of fragments of temperate rainforest (and even better, if you have photographic proof), please fill out this Google form and tweet me your photos. As submissions are made, I’ll regularly update the map with your finds. Thank you for your help!

36 thoughts on “Take action: help map the lost rainforests of Britain

  1. It is interesting to see there are none in West Cornwall I can think of a few patches I will see what I can photograph and get back to you.

  2. We are watching your rainforest renaissance with excitement and anticipation from our temperate maritime rainforest over here in the Salish Sea! Mushrooms and beaver are in your future.

  3. This is a great project. I think it is safe to say, that all of Britain was once covered in forest. There would have been small clearings for livestock or agriculture, but mostly it was trees. This is evident due to the way that people lived. No-one had power tools, or sawmills, or anything that was capable of damaging the forest that much. And the population of the country was drastically lower. So there would simply not have been enough people power to remove trees faster than they could grow. In fact, deeper back into history mankind did not even use metal tools, imagine how impossible it would have been to remove a 900 year old oak with a flint axe?! It is certainly important to restore much of the lost forest, in order for our population to have healthier air to breathe. And I hope that this project will make people think about how our hills and dales should look, covered in natural vegetation. (trees).

    1. i live in ireland and work with trees .most of the forest clearance in ireland was done in the neolithic. they just ringed the trees and large hungry livestock will eat anything in winter.
      also there are waves of disease that appear, for example we are living through a wave of dutch elm disease and the archealogical records show a catastrophic collapse in the species 4000 years ago when it was the most prevelant large native tree. However this same species has the ability to colonise very fast.

  4. I have a few photos of the Gwaun Valley in West Wales which shows on the map as a bioclimatic zone. They were taken last year. I’ll dig them out for you.

  5. Sounds like a great project. We could have whole swathes of the west covered in temperate rainforest. How does it tie in with the Plantlife project to map Atlantic temperate rain forests? I have started filling in their recording forms on line. I live in North Devon where we have quite few beautiful temperate rainforests.
    I also like your book on Who Owns England. We read it in our local Left Book Club recently.

  6. There are stretches of Yarncliff Wood by Hathersage that may qualify. There’s quite a wide area of ancient woodland, oaks and birches, running alongside Burbage Brook which sits in a ravine. Looks like this: https://www.northernscapes.org/2020/-dancing-oaks-

    It’s a popular walking spot, not far from Sheffield so I’m sure some friendly citizen scientists would oblige with further info on plant life via a twitter call out. Peak District national park I’m sure would also assist.

  7. Would Claybury Woods interest you? It is a small detached patch of very ancient Epping Forest, situated in Redbridge, Essex, near London. It possibly dates back to the twelfth century. A lovely illustrated book with CD for children, was written about it, by author, teacher and artist, Tony Cranston.
    I myself am a poet, and was inspired to jot down a few lines while wandering through it. I used to work in the old Claybury Hospital nearby, which is now a ‘gated’ housing estate.

    There is another patch of ancient Epping in Woodford Green, called Knighton Woods, which might also qualify.

    Sorry no photos, I am elderly with disabilities now, so rely on relatives and friends to take me to the woods and forest which I dearly love.

    1. I grew up near Wanstead Patk and Wanstead Flats. Epping Forest was close by and I have happy memories of places like High Beech. It is a near miracle that so much ancient woodland has survived so close to east London. I think about it often in my declining years.

  8. Hanley Dingle in the Teme Valley in Worcestershire used to be described by the Wildlife Trust (who manage it) as rainforest

  9. some others are picking up on some of the similar looking woodland habitata consisting “twisted oaks/moss+lichen-covered branches and rocks all the way up the easteren “Edges” of the Peak Distirct National Park – including Padley and Gardom’s Edge : (https://www.hansheap.co.uk/Peak-District-Eastern-edges-Gardoms-Birchen-Curbar-Froggatt/i-J8MX983/A) Can’t say I have noticed any Polypody ferns but the habitats look very similar. Not sure the age of the many “twisted oaks”, in combination with Silver birch usually, but these “Edges” (Millstone Grit escarpments) were heavily quarried for millstones for several hundred years so probably quite disturbed over time…..

  10. Sounds like what Plantlife is doing?: The Rapid Woodland Assessment (RWA) is part of the
    Building Resilience in South West Woodlands project,
    which focuses on conserving the region’s
    Atlantic woodlands. These woodlands are part
    of the world’s ‘temperate rainforest’ – a globally
    rare habitat characterised by high rainfall and mild,
    humid conditions. In Britain, it is restricted to western
    upland and coastal areas, and in the southwest can
    be found from Cornwall to west Somerset. These
    woodlands are internationally important for their
    lichens and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).
    Hopefully they will resume their trainings in the assessment.

  11. I see you have Miller’s Dale in Derbyshire. Would Monk’s Dale also qualify? It’s a SSSI.
    I went there two weeks ago. Beautiful.

    1. I was wondering the same. We were there last weekend and it really is beautiful. Have photos of ferns growing in trees and huge amounts of moss covering and hanging from everything.

    2. I agree. I was in Monk’s Dale in September and we commented then that it looked like a rainforest.

  12. This is a terrific project! I’ve been exploring woods around Bristol recently and have come across a few heavily mossed woods with polypody ferns. Happy to send photos and locations. I was just wondering if there’s a more comprehensive list of indicators of UK temperate rainforest? Would it be useful to have a visual guide maybe?

    1. Check out Plantlife and their Rapid Woodland Assessment . It explains how to assess a woodland. Photos of indicator species etc

  13. Reblogged this on Delta of Curious and commented:
    I’m in the midst of prepping and finishing my final term paper. Hence the lack of post activity. Here is a breath of fresh air that I genuinely needed, and thoroughly appreciated. Ciao!

  14. Skyrrid fawr, Abergavenny, surely falls into your temperate rainforest catagory. I havent been there in years but would never forget its beauty. If I can manage a trip there I will send photos.

  15. There’ssuitable candidates in Arnamurchan around Loch Sunart & also in Ariundle Nature reserve near Strontian. I visited while on hol in the area several years ago – didn’t take any photos as it was raining @ the time!

  16. The coastal woodland between Peppercombe and Windbury in North Devon contains numerous steep valleys and ravines over 10 miles or so, and stretches inland in places for miles too. True, it’s spoilt by conifer plantations and pheasant shoots in places – the birds are overstocked, and destroy the understorey- and rhododendrons, which the Clovelly Estate are clearing out bit by bit. But there are vast swathes which seem to tick all the necessary species boxes (3 species of deer, buzzards, dippers, twisted oaks, mosses, fungi), and much of it is open to the public via the SW Coast Path and National Trust. The woods near Brownsham are particularly fine, and contain a waterfall that goes over a cliff. These woods, nearby, were the location of the true Victorian morality tale that gave rise to the panto story of The Babes in the Wood. Boy, it rains a lot there. We love it, and go regularly.

  17. In addition to existing fragments, I would be interested to know if anyone is monitoring the creation (or restoration) of new rainforests. As the UK climate gets wetter and warmer, it’s important to plant species that will thrive in 2050 and beyond – ie temperate rainforest.

  18. I’d suggest Jack Flat in the Peaks if you follow the Barbrook river down from the Clod Hall Road crossroads. It’s a couple of mile from Padley Gorge, shares the same aspect, elevation and much the same flora.

  19. Hi. I want to contribute to this project, which I think is great, but I’m overwhelmed by the sheer extent of good quality temperate rainforest that has been missed, both by the studies that inform the project and so far not picked up by the crowd sourced survey.
    I think the fundamental mistake is the focus on upland areas at the exclusion of nearly all coastal Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, which together have enormous areas of extant temperate rainforest, mainly associated with steep sided river and estuary valleys. For example, the Fal Estuary, river Erme, Helford, Dart, Kingsbridge, Avon, Yealm, Tamar, Looe, Fowey, the Clovelly coast, etc etc etc.
    The absence of glaciation in this region has created a unique landscape in the UK with steep often rocky v-shaped river valleys that have largely remained untouched by farming, and the strong maritime climate creates the perfect conditions without altitude. This area is hugely overlooked.

    1. Hi Carl! Thanks so much for being keen to contribute. Just to reassure you, since starting this project I’ve become far more aware of the temperate rainforest sites in lowland areas, like the estuary valleys you’ve cited – I’ve since visited the Helford, know the Dart valley very well, and explored more of the Cornish and Devon coastal valleys. You’re right that they don’t all appear on the map nor in the blog yet – but more of them will be added, and more of them will feature in my book out this October 🙂 And please do also submit more sites via the Google Form – there are lots of sites I’ll have missed for sure! Best wishes, Guy

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