Britain’s Temperate Rainforest: Fragile and Forgotten Places

By Christie Johnson

Do you believe in fairytales?

Knobbly gnarled branches dripping in bushy bearded lichens. Lumpy oak bracken oozing honey-like liquid. The twisted mythical lobes of jelly ear fungus protruding every which way. A wood warbler’s captivating cries echoing through the dense tree canopy.

If I said I was describing a habitat in Britain, would you believe me? I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t!

Most of the UK’s wild places have been carved up in the name of agricultural development and urbanisation. Yet otherworldly fragments of forgotten wilderness still remain. In fact, the British Isles harbours one the rarest ecosystems on earth: temperate rainforests.

Discover the secret world of Britain’s temperate rainforests, its burgeoning threats and what you can do to help protect these vanishing habitats.

What is a Temperate Rainforest?

Temperate rainforests are mild, moist and mystifying places teeming with life. Unlike tropical rainforests that are found closer to the equator, temperate rainforests flourish in cooler climes. Temperate rainforests only make up less than 1% of the world’s surface and are considered even more endangered than its tropical counterpart.

This unique and incredibly rare biome is sparsely scattered across Western Britain as well as New Zealand, Japan, Canada and Chile. Often referred to as the Atlantic woodland or Celtic rainforest, Britain’s temperate rainforest is strongly influenced by the sea with high rainfall and humidity creating mild temperatures and the perfect conditions for an abundance of life to grow.

These ancient woodland habitats are wet and humid enough for moisture-loving epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) to thrive. If you noticed a densely wooded area heavily draped in lichen, mosses and liverworts, you may just be standing in a temperate rainforest!

There are an abundance of tree populations that grow in temperate rainforests including birch, sessile oak, rowan, willow, holly, alder and hazel. But you’d be mistaken if you assumed these luscious ecosystems were only filled with trees. On the contrary, temperate rainforests are actually a dramatic array of woodland, ravines, gorges, open glades and crags!

Map showing Temperate rainforest locations across the globe.
Temperate rainforest locations across the globe.

What Happened to Britain’s Temperate Rainforest?

I often look upon the British countryside with great sadness. It has long been hailed as a place of phenomenal natural beauty. Yet in reality it’s a depleting desert compared to the luscious land that once existed.

The familiar swathes of agricultural land and urban development make it hard to imagine Britain as a rainforest nation; a wild habitat brimming with rich biodiversity.

Around 12,000 years ago, glaciers retreated while warmer and wetter conditions ensued. Over thousands of years, various species of trees migrated to the north, colonising vast areas of Britain. Birch is believed to be the first natural pioneer followed by pine, hazel, elm, oak and alder.

There is debate around whether Britain’s prehistoric “Wildwood” was largely closed-canopy woodland or an ever-changing medley of habitats. Ecologist Dr Frans Vera surmises ancient Britain was actually composed of dense forest, open glades, scrub and grasslands caused by the grazing and disruption of (now extinct) mammals such as wild aurochs and beavers.

Since the Neolithic period, Britons have cleared temperate rainforests for settlements, livestock and farmland in the same way the Amazon is being slashed and burned today.

Over the centuries, this bountiful biome succumbed to the needs of tin miners, charcoal burners, timber production and hungry grazers.

Ironically, we view the destruction of Amazonia and other tropical rainforests with a heavy heart while unknowingly having suffered the same monumental loss a millennia ago.

Why are Britain’s Temperate Rainforests Important?

Britain’s temperate rainforests are of huge global importance. They are one of the most biodiverse places on earth and home to a cornucopia of scarce and endangered wildlife. For example, the temperate rainforest in Scotland is the only habitat in the world to harbour special species of lichens and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).

The preservation of epiphytic plants is a priority due to the vital role they play in combating the climate crisis. Rainforest trees are often thickly blanketed in a brilliant array of bryophytes. Layer upon layer thrive and die on the same branch, forming a dense coat of decaying leaf-litter where new mosses and liverworts grow. A study on canopy soils in Costa Rica’s ancient tropical rainforest found that the epiphytes that form on tree branches act as a substantial carbon sink, storing up to three times more carbon than soils on the ground.

Current Threats Facing Britain’s Temperate Rainforests

Despite being a beautifully bio-rich habitat, nearly three quarters of temperate rainforests in the UK don’t possess any formal protection. This means Britain’s tiny fragmented rainforest is exposed to numerous threats and could be at risk of vanishing altogether.

Thankfully, there is some good news. The UK government has proposed an unprecedented strategy to protect and recover these fascinatingly fragile biomes and get a handle on some of the major threats outlined below.

Deer Grazing

There are approximately between 650,000 and 2 million deer in the UK. Populations are at a historic high – especially in Scotland. A report by the Scottish Environment LINK highlights deer are a natural part of Britain’s temperate rainforest yet overgrazing means biodiverse habitats are under threat.

The Scottish government is investing in deer fencing however this is costly and can be ineffective. Proposed strategies also include developing a community approach to deer stalking management, increased funding and investing in deer monitoring technologies such as drones.

Another radical solution would be to reintroduce eurasian wolves and lynx. These keystone predators once roamed Britain’s rainforests but were hunted to extinction by – yes, you guessed it – humans!

Wolves and lynx play an integral role in our ecosystem and could significantly alter the behaviour of deer, naturally culling the populations and supporting the regrowth of Britain’s wild places.

There are currently no plans to reintroduce wolves into the UK. Countries in Europe, however, have been very successful in welcoming them back – especially those that facilitate wolf education programmes. For the introduction of both lynx and wolves, a compensation scheme (similar to Norway) could be set up in case any livestock stray into woodland. A lynx feasibility study is currently underway by Scottish rewilding charity Trees for Life.

Air Pollution

Air pollution is an insidious threat to the unique and finely tuned temperate rainforest climate.

Nitrogen gases are creeping into these wet and wonderful places at an alarming rate.

Ammonia emissions from farm manure and fertilisers and nitrogen oxide emissions from fossil fuels are the main perpetrators. It’s estimated over 95% of woodlands in the UK are exposed to air pollution with even the most remote rainforest areas in the northwest of Scotland affected.

Some native rainforest species rely on clean air to thrive. Lichens – a combination of fungi and algae – are extremely sensitive to air pollution and are at risk of disappearing altogether.

Air pollution creates the ideal conditions for nitrogen-tolerant plants, such as brambles and nettles, to grow. These feisty floras can quickly displace their fragile native counterparts, disrupting the delicate balance of the rainforest ecosystem.

Invasive Plant Species

One word: Rhododendron.

Introduced into the UK during the late eighteenth century from the Mediterranean and Asia, this non-native plant is an aggressive coloniser and considered the “silent killer” of Britain’s temperate rainforests. It dominates the forest floor, taking vital nutrients, moisture and light from native species. The problem with Rhododendronis that it’s incredibly difficult to eradicate once established.

Inside Britain’s Temperate Rainforests: Specialist Species to Look Out For

So, how do you know if you’re standing in a temperate rainforest?

Although temperate rainforest fauna and flora vary depending on the location, here are some examples of powerful temperate rainforest specialists to give you a flavour of the rich array of declining biodiversity we must learn to protect.

Beard Lichens (Usnea spp.)

Beard lichens – also known as old man’s beard or string of sausages – are ubiquitous throughout Britain’s temperate rainforests. These beautifully bushy epiphytic plants dangle from the bark of tree trunks and branches, coating woodland areas with a luminous grey-green hue.

Lichens provide microhabitats, shelter and food for a wide range of invertebrates. This in turn provides food for larger insects and birds. Lichens are also integral for carbon cycling and water absorption.

Closeup of a mossy tree
Beard Lichens (Usnea spp.)
Photo by Jaël Vallée on Unsplash

Hazel Gloves Fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri)

A true sign you’re in the presence of ancient woodland! Resembling rubbery orange fingers, this otherworldly native temperate rainforest species is an extremely endangered fungus exclusively found on old hazel trees.

Hazel Gloves Fungus can only thrive in very clean air and Atlantic rainforest conditions. This makes this fabulous fungus a flagship species for temperate rainforests.

Tree Lungwort (Lobaria spp.)

Large leafy lungwort lichens are another strong sign you’re standing in a temperate rainforest. Lichens are extremely epiphytic by nature and are formed as a result of a close relationship between a fungus and one or more organisms, most likely alga.

If you’re wandering through an ancient woodland, notice these lettuce-like structures adorning the barks of old gnarly trees with beautifully bright green hues.

Britain's Temperate Rainforest: Pancake-shaped lichen climbing up the trunk of a tree in a green forest
Tree Lungwort (Lobaria spp.)
Photo by Alexey Melechin on Unsplash

Lungwort lichen were once widespread across UK forests but has been forced to retreat to Atlantic coastal regions due to burgeoning air pollution.

As with the bearded lichens, lungwort lichen are the foundation of ancient forest habitat; what phytoplankton are to the marine ecosystem. They are also thought to contain powerful medicinal properties. Lungwort’s fleshy texture is not too dissimilar from lung tissue. Humans have historically gravitated towards lungwort when treating respiratory ailments such as asthma and tuberculosis. Hence the name lungwort.

Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)

If you happen to be wandering through the sacred realms of a temperate rainforest, you may just be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a redstart’s brilliant burnt orange breast as it darts through the ancient tree canopy. This iconic temperate rainforest specialist loves the moist and mild climate of the UK’s Atlantic woodlands and migrates from Central Africa to breed between April – September.

Sadly, redstarts are in decline. They are on the Amber List of species with unfavourable conservation status.

Orange-chested bird with black back, face, and eyes
Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus)
Photo by Simon Velychko on Unsplash

Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

A wood warbler’s distinct song is a magical thing to behold. It’s often likened to “a spinning coin on a marble slab” as it reverberates through the temperate rainforest canopy.

Like the redstart, the wood warbler migrates to Africa during the winter months and breeds in the UK’s temperate rainforests from April to August.

This woodland dweller boasts of luscious lime green tones. Similar to much of the native temperate rainforest wildlife in the UK, the wood warbler is declining and is on the Red List for species of conservation concern.

WOOD WARBLER Image by wirestock on Freepik
Wood warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix) on spring migration, stopping over and perched on a branch with lichens.
Malta, Mediterranean
Image by wirestock on Freepik

How You Can Help Save Temperate Rainforests

Britain was once a thriving rainforest nation. It was a huge part of our culture; our DNA. Over time we have collectively forgotten our deep-seated connection to this vital ecosystem and how a thriving temperate rainforest is essential to all our survival. One can’t help but feel if we were to lose this sacred biome, we’d lose a significant part of ourselves too.

So what can you do to help protect these vanishing fragments of essential biodiversity?

There are many environmental charities that are doing all they can to champion and preserve temperate forests in the UK. You might consider donating to the Woodland’s Trust Rainforest Appeal or volunteering for conservation projects.

Here are some incredible organisations you could consider supporting:

Most importantly, it’s about discovering as much as possible about these fragile and beautiful biomes. Because the more we remember, the more chance we have at preserving Britain’s wonderful wilderness now and in the future.

Other sources used for this article:

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