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The magic of Britain’s rainforests Let's restore the sacred groves of our ancestors

(Rick Bowden/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(Rick Bowden/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)


November 17, 2022   6 mins

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as the protagonists sail through a dark and eerie Thames Estuary towards the Congolese rainforest, the sailor Marlow remarks knowingly that “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth… when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago… They were men enough to face the darkness.”

Conrad’s analogy was more apt than he perhaps realised: in that distant past, a considerable portion of Britain’s surface was itself rainforest, a dark and forbidding place for Rome’s colonial adventurers to venture into and civilise. After all, when Boudicca launched her revolt against Roman rule in AD60, burning down the thriving colonial outpost of Londinium, she had chosen her moment well. The Roman governor Gaius Seutonius Paulinus was busy campaigning in his own heart of darkness, the mystical island of Mona or Ynys Mon — today’s Anglesey — where the Druids fomented rebellion from within their sacred oak groves, dripping with rain and, according to the Romans, human guts. Their first task upon victory, as Tacitus observed, was “to demolish the groves consecrated to their savage cults: for they considered it a pious duty to slake the altars with captive blood and to consult their deities by means of human entrails”.

Even without the human sacrifices, Britain’s last patches of temperate rainforest still possess a markedly eerie quality, as the writer and land campaigner Guy Shrubsole observes in his excellent new book, Lost Rainforests of Britain. In Dartmoor’s tiny surviving fragment of rainforest, Wistman’s Wood, “grimacing faces appear in the gnarled and knotted trunks, bringing to mind the Ents of Tolkien’s Fangorn Forest. Wreathed in autumnal mists, the wood feels Otherworldly, and with good reason. It is as soaked in legend as it is in rain.”

It is this eternal, cool ambient moisture that makes a woodland, wrapped in sea fog and drenched in rain, a rainforest, in the technical sense of being a place “wet and mild enough for plants to grow on other plants”, their gnarled and wizened trunks eerily shrouded in green mosses, lichens, fungi and other epiphytes listed by the author in loving botanical detail. Even the wood’s very name derives, Shrubsole notes, “from the Devonshire dialect word wisht, meaning ‘eerie, uncanny’ or, in some readings, ‘pixie-haunted’” — a place for centuries “seen as a domain of pixies and fairy folk, a ‘thin place’ where the gap between our world and a spectral Otherworld is narrow and passable”.

And yet, as with so much of the deep magic of our realm, Wistman’s Wood has been almost extinguished by modernity. Only eight acres of the wood survive, surrounded by a bleak and inhospitable moorland haunted only by ravenous sheep. The sad story of Wistman’s Wood is thus the story of Britain’s lost rainforests in miniature. Once covering up to a fifth of Britain’s landmass, concentrated on the western seaboard where Atlantic rains still shroud the steep hills in mist and gloom, Britain’s temperate rainforests have been felled, grazed and overplanted so ruthlessly that they now cover less than 0.5% of the country. The loss of much of this ancient, mythic landscape is more recent than we may realise: the post-war planting of conifer plantations alone, Shrubsole notes, means that “we may well have felled some 66,000 acres of Britain’s rainforests in the twentieth century alone – an area the size of Birmingham – and all in the name of planting trees for timber”.

This loss through sheer neglect is not just a tragedy for Britain: it is the destruction of a habitat of global significance. As Shrubsole notes, “temperate rainforest is actually rarer than the tropical variety: it covers just 1% of the world’s surface”. Yet remarkably, this precious habitat is not protected by law — indeed, no government bodies have ever bothered to even map its remaining fragments, meaning the precise extent of Britain’s surviving rainforests are a matter of supposition, recorded by a small band of obsessive enthusiasts. A celebrated campaigner for land rights, Shrubsole takes aim at Britain’s fragmented and unequal system of land ownership as the root cause of the decline. In Scotland, as he observes, fewer than 500 people, often mysterious offshore investors, own half of the land, leaving sterile deer-wrecked moorland where rain-drenched, life-filled hazelwoods would naturally thrive.

In England, where archaic quasi-feudal patterns of land ownership have rarely been matched by dutifully benevolent stewardship, the situation is not much better. Indeed, those who profess to care for the environment have often been the nemeses of England’s last patches of rainforest. The Dartington Hall estate in Devon, a pioneer of organic farming methods, was directly responsible for grubbing up precious stands of ancient rainforest to plant lucrative conifer plantations. Even the survival of Wistman’s Wood itself, part of the Duchy of Cornwall estate, is threatened by the neglect of its former steward and our present King to install proper fencing to prevent nearby sheep from nibbling away at its edges: a disappointing lapse from such a passionate advocate of the natural environment, and one we should hope his successor, the new Prince of Wales, will take care to rectify.

For the campaign to save Britain’s dying rainforests is not, in itself, a difficult task. All that is really necessary, at least at first, is to fence off the surviving remnants to prevent the destructive grazing of sheep and deer, and the grubbing up of invasive rhododendrenons, allowing the surviving patches to regenerate. Left to their own devices, much of Britain’s western uplands would become rainforest once more, a wild and evocative landscape rich in historic associations. As Shrubsole observes, “the fragments that remain are reminders of our lost heritage: an ecosystem that inspired some of our greatest myths and legends”. This vivid sense of myth and magic, the yearning for deep history that these landscapes evoke is powerful, and deftly evoked by Shrubsole, perhaps rarely for a current-day Left-wing activist. For as he notes, “the Atlantic rainforests are woven into Celtic mythology, the weird tales of The Mabinogion, the Arthurian romances, the body of literature that folklorists call ‘the Matter of Britain’”, and even today “they can inspire and rejuvenate us, just as they did our predecessors.”

The restorative properties of this mission, blending myth and land stewardship, are inspiringly real: one former soldier, the evocatively named Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, is healing the psychic wounds of combat in Afghanistan by returning his family’s Cornish farm to rainforest. In Ireland, a landscape even more denuded of its native woodland and blanketed in sterile forestry plantations than Britain, the writer and farmer Eoghan Daltun is pursuing a parallel project, restoring and expanding his own small patch of West Cork rainforest. To restore such habitats does not mean to close them off to human activity, as many critics of rewilding fear: Shrubsole’s book gives inspiring examples of small landowners returning to premodern methods of farming, allowing native cattle and pigs to rootle through the forests in place of the destructive desert interloper, the sheep. Across these isles, passionate individuals are doing their best, on a small scale, to restore habitats of global importance without support or subsidy.

Yet much more can, and surely should be done. As Shrubsole observes, “when it comes to temperate rainforest, Britain truly is world-beating”, yet “we call on Brazil and Indonesia to save their rainforests, yet don’t own up to the fact that Britain is a rainforest nation, too — just one that’s already cut most of ours down”. At minimal cost, and little effort, the government could record what patches of Britain’s rainforests still survive then pursue a course of action to regrow them, linking the sterile subsidy-sinks of our western uplands into a dense and nature-rich landscape of Atlantic oak and hazelwoods. By doing so, not only could we reverse the catastrophic decline of birds and insects driving many of Britain’s native species to extinction, but we can achieve something of less tangible, mythic importance: restoring our national connection to the land, and rewilding ourselves.

A committed campaign to save Britain’s rainforests would surely strike the imagination of many people who may not even know that they still — just — exist. It is a more concrete and achievable good than that achieved by throwing soup at paintings, say, and one more likely to win public support. As Shrubsole calculates, simply by installing a 150-metre fenced buffer zone around the surviving patches of rainforest, we could double their extent in a generation. The Duke of Cornwall could easily pledge to protect and expand the two threatened patches of rainforest, Wistman’s Wood and Black Tor Beare, he owns in Dartmoor, and in doing so provide an example for other landowners to follow. From Scotland to the Lake District, Wales to Devon and Cornwall, and (though Shrubsole ignores the province) Northern Ireland, much of the country was until very recent times rainforest, and could easily be rainforest once again. In saving these ancient habitats, as rich in myth and legend as in wildlife, we can restore the sacred groves of our ancestors, and make Britain once more one of the wild places of the Earth.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

arisroussinos

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J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
1 year ago

A very interesting article. I had no idea there was even a sliver of rainforest left in the UK. I’m fortunate to have visited the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA, several times. It includes the Olympic National Park which protects roughly a million acres of mountains and temperate rain forest. I certainly recommend a visit if you enjoy the outdoors.
Even in the US, our massive forest legacy has been brutally destroyed. The practice of “clear cutting” forests is one of the most environmentally destructive acts imaginable.
I wish Mr. Shrubsole, and other stewards of the land, best of luck in their attempts to protect the UK’s remaining rainforests. I suggest, though, they base their advocacy on an appeal to environmentalism rather than tradition, history, and myth. Sadly, too many “thought leaders” in the UK are intent on deconstructing Britain’s history and culture.

Michael W
Michael W
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Britain*

Chelsea King
CK
Chelsea King
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“I suggest, though, they base their advocacy on an appeal to environmentalism rather than tradition, history, and myth. Sadly, too many “thought leaders” in the UK are intent on deconstructing Britain’s history and culture.”
I think they can do both. The environmentalism would hopefully bring in the environmentalists (which I highly doubt it would because they don’t really care about the environment) and the true conservatives who want to see Britain grow, thrive and become connected to its past. I’d even go a step further and start advocating digging up concrete roads, and allowing plants and trees to thrive in the boundary, creating even more opportunities to bring back tree cover. We have too much concrete.

Michael W
MW
Michael W
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Britain*

Chelsea King
CK
Chelsea King
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“I suggest, though, they base their advocacy on an appeal to environmentalism rather than tradition, history, and myth. Sadly, too many “thought leaders” in the UK are intent on deconstructing Britain’s history and culture.”
I think they can do both. The environmentalism would hopefully bring in the environmentalists (which I highly doubt it would because they don’t really care about the environment) and the true conservatives who want to see Britain grow, thrive and become connected to its past. I’d even go a step further and start advocating digging up concrete roads, and allowing plants and trees to thrive in the boundary, creating even more opportunities to bring back tree cover. We have too much concrete.

J Bryant
JB
J Bryant
1 year ago

A very interesting article. I had no idea there was even a sliver of rainforest left in the UK. I’m fortunate to have visited the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, USA, several times. It includes the Olympic National Park which protects roughly a million acres of mountains and temperate rain forest. I certainly recommend a visit if you enjoy the outdoors.
Even in the US, our massive forest legacy has been brutally destroyed. The practice of “clear cutting” forests is one of the most environmentally destructive acts imaginable.
I wish Mr. Shrubsole, and other stewards of the land, best of luck in their attempts to protect the UK’s remaining rainforests. I suggest, though, they base their advocacy on an appeal to environmentalism rather than tradition, history, and myth. Sadly, too many “thought leaders” in the UK are intent on deconstructing Britain’s history and culture.

Adam Bartlett
AB
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Would be good in so many ways if we can do this. “The works of nature are a freshly spoken word of God” -Goethe

Adam Bartlett
AB
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Would be good in so many ways if we can do this. “The works of nature are a freshly spoken word of God” -Goethe

Aidan Anabetting
AA
Aidan Anabetting
1 year ago

Inspired piece of writing. Let’s hope it is heard and heeded at the Duchy of Cornwall. UHERD seems to encompass an interesting tension between pastoralists and denouncers of “eco-fascism”.

Ms Rowe
MR
Ms Rowe
1 year ago

Ecological scientists have known about and studied UK rainforests for years, there are numerous references to them in the scientific literature going back 20 years at least and they were first referred to as a distinct entity by forest ecologist Peterken in the 1990s. I know many researchers and botanists alike have made suggestions and representations to the bodies responsible for protecting important habitat to increase protection and extent of our rainforests, but to no effect. It will be good if Mr Shrubsole’s campaign increases legal protection and expansion of rainforest remnants, but it will also prove that society would rather listen to social media campaigners than scientists, which is very sad.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ms Rowe
Ms Rowe
MR
Ms Rowe
1 year ago

Ecological scientists have known about and studied UK rainforests for years, there are numerous references to them in the scientific literature going back 20 years at least and they were first referred to as a distinct entity by forest ecologist Peterken in the 1990s. I know many researchers and botanists alike have made suggestions and representations to the bodies responsible for protecting important habitat to increase protection and extent of our rainforests, but to no effect. It will be good if Mr Shrubsole’s campaign increases legal protection and expansion of rainforest remnants, but it will also prove that society would rather listen to social media campaigners than scientists, which is very sad.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ms Rowe
Aidan Anabetting
AA
Aidan Anabetting
1 year ago

Inspired piece of writing. Let’s hope it is heard and heeded at the Duchy of Cornwall. UHERD seems to encompass an interesting tension between pastoralists and denouncers of “eco-fascism”.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

A wonderful essay. Thanks. So nice to see serious people writing about things we can do, now.
I particularly appreciated the idea of setting fences 150 meters away from the edge of the extent forests and just leaving the forest to do its thing. In ten years the “buffer zone” will be filled in. In twenty it will be forest. In thirty it will be almost indistiguishable from the old forest.
Often, there are too many voices involved in planning conservation projects; too many people with too much education, I suppose, all clamoring for input. The truth is, if we just get out of the way, and stop doing harm, the project will bear fruit by itself. Nature is intensely, surprisingly vigorous. We don’t really understand, nor do we need to understand, the mechanisms involved. Just step back and let it happen.

laurence scaduto
LS
laurence scaduto
1 year ago

A wonderful essay. Thanks. So nice to see serious people writing about things we can do, now.
I particularly appreciated the idea of setting fences 150 meters away from the edge of the extent forests and just leaving the forest to do its thing. In ten years the “buffer zone” will be filled in. In twenty it will be forest. In thirty it will be almost indistiguishable from the old forest.
Often, there are too many voices involved in planning conservation projects; too many people with too much education, I suppose, all clamoring for input. The truth is, if we just get out of the way, and stop doing harm, the project will bear fruit by itself. Nature is intensely, surprisingly vigorous. We don’t really understand, nor do we need to understand, the mechanisms involved. Just step back and let it happen.

jmo
JM
jmo
1 year ago

Fascinating, I never knew about this, thanks

jmo
JM
jmo
1 year ago

Fascinating, I never knew about this, thanks

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“a dark and forbidding place for Rome’s colonial adventurers to venture into and civilise”. Perhaps we can now acknowledge that that noble project has been an abject failure?

However the best of luck to Mr Shrubsole (what an apposite name!) in his noble endeavour. One has to wonder though with our ever increasing population, both legal and illegal, will ‘we’ still be able to afford the luxury of an English Rain Forest?

For myself, and without wishing to denigrate Devon I think the finest example(s) are to found in West Penwith, Cornwall.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“a dark and forbidding place for Rome’s colonial adventurers to venture into and civilise”. Perhaps we can now acknowledge that that noble project has been an abject failure?

However the best of luck to Mr Shrubsole (what an apposite name!) in his noble endeavour. One has to wonder though with our ever increasing population, both legal and illegal, will ‘we’ still be able to afford the luxury of an English Rain Forest?

For myself, and without wishing to denigrate Devon I think the finest example(s) are to found in West Penwith, Cornwall.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Deer-wrecked moorland? But try and control the deer and you’ll have the eco-warriors against you.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Wolves are quite partial to deer I gather.

Chelsea King
Chelsea King
1 year ago

Whenever I suggest bringing back wolves, bobcats, bears, and other predators, the eco-warriors are always quick to say no. They don’t actually want to protect the environment because they don’t understand what it means to do so. They think farming and coal/oil are the only things that affect the environment but they never once mention herbivore overpopulation or ecology in general.

D Glover
DG
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  Chelsea King

Chris Loder MP(Con West Dorset) is opposed to the re-introduction of the white-tail eagle in Dorset. He says they will predate lambs. I suppose they might, but to a far lesser extent than out-of-control dogs.
This is the tension; between people who want to re-introduce and re-wild, and people who want to farm, to develop, and to keep cats and dogs

D Glover
DG
D Glover
1 year ago
Reply to  Chelsea King

Chris Loder MP(Con West Dorset) is opposed to the re-introduction of the white-tail eagle in Dorset. He says they will predate lambs. I suppose they might, but to a far lesser extent than out-of-control dogs.
This is the tension; between people who want to re-introduce and re-wild, and people who want to farm, to develop, and to keep cats and dogs

Chelsea King
CK
Chelsea King
1 year ago

Whenever I suggest bringing back wolves, bobcats, bears, and other predators, the eco-warriors are always quick to say no. They don’t actually want to protect the environment because they don’t understand what it means to do so. They think farming and coal/oil are the only things that affect the environment but they never once mention herbivore overpopulation or ecology in general.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CS
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Wolves are quite partial to deer I gather.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

Deer-wrecked moorland? But try and control the deer and you’ll have the eco-warriors against you.

Ross Jolliffe
RJ
Ross Jolliffe
1 year ago

The boundary margin fencing idea is a good one; natural, native regeneration assured, a species-rich development over many years, no imported plants and no tree-shelters etc.

Ross Jolliffe
RJ
Ross Jolliffe
1 year ago

The boundary margin fencing idea is a good one; natural, native regeneration assured, a species-rich development over many years, no imported plants and no tree-shelters etc.

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

I live in British Columbia and spend a lot of time in the wilderness – including it’s extensive coastal rain forests. If you visit the area around Vancouver you can hike through forests of massive trees. What most visitors don’t realize is that these forests were all clear cut around a hundred years ago and they are hiking among ‘new’ trees. You can still see the old growth stumps with the loggers notches. The author is correct that with very little help the forest will regenerate within a human lifetime. I was hiking in a mountain clearcut just this fall – maybe 20 years old. It was already almost impassable due to regrowth – I actually had to turn around and abandon my trip because my progress was so slow.

Peter Johnson
PJ
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

I live in British Columbia and spend a lot of time in the wilderness – including it’s extensive coastal rain forests. If you visit the area around Vancouver you can hike through forests of massive trees. What most visitors don’t realize is that these forests were all clear cut around a hundred years ago and they are hiking among ‘new’ trees. You can still see the old growth stumps with the loggers notches. The author is correct that with very little help the forest will regenerate within a human lifetime. I was hiking in a mountain clearcut just this fall – maybe 20 years old. It was already almost impassable due to regrowth – I actually had to turn around and abandon my trip because my progress was so slow.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

My first thought from the picture was it was the Olympic rain forest, here where I live. 140 inches a year typically. It dropped 6 inches in a day a couple weeks ago.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

My first thought from the picture was it was the Olympic rain forest, here where I live. 140 inches a year typically. It dropped 6 inches in a day a couple weeks ago.

Will Will
WW
Will Will
1 year ago

I thought most of the trees in this country (including in Deon and Cornwall and Wales) were felled millennia ago, and earlier than had been thought by 20th century historians. I am no fan of the aesthetically ghastly conifer plantations but understand why they were planted. Just as I understand why uplands have been grazed for millennia. The UK a population continues to grow apace and we need to produce more agricultural and forestry products domestically. I am not a fan of rewilding which reminds me of people who want to learn and converse in dead languages and even require others to do so.

Jeff Cunningham
JC
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

Yes, back before they discovered fossil fuels, when they cut it down for pre-fossil fuel.

Similarly, agricultural output per acre was much lower before it was improved genetically – also requiring more acreage under plow.

But I wonder if this author is in favor of either of these things which are making it possible to restore these rain forests?

Rob N
RN
Rob N
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

“The UK a population continues to grow apace” or maybe we should look at trying to reduce our population. Encourage those who were not born here, or citizens, to return to their native land. If we could return population to 40m then…

Bertie Schitz-Peas
B
Bertie Schitz-Peas
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob N

More Pixies less Pakis, are Pixie doors a good thing?

Bertie Schitz-Peas
Bertie Schitz-Peas
1 year ago
Reply to  Rob N

More Pixies less Pakis, are Pixie doors a good thing?

Jeff Cunningham
JC
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

Yes, back before they discovered fossil fuels, when they cut it down for pre-fossil fuel.

Similarly, agricultural output per acre was much lower before it was improved genetically – also requiring more acreage under plow.

But I wonder if this author is in favor of either of these things which are making it possible to restore these rain forests?

Rob N
RN
Rob N
1 year ago
Reply to  Will Will

“The UK a population continues to grow apace” or maybe we should look at trying to reduce our population. Encourage those who were not born here, or citizens, to return to their native land. If we could return population to 40m then…

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago

I thought most of the trees in this country (including in Deon and Cornwall and Wales) were felled millennia ago, and earlier than had been thought by 20th century historians. I am no fan of the aesthetically ghastly conifer plantations but understand why they were planted. Just as I understand why uplands have been grazed for millennia. The UK a population continues to grow apace and we need to produce more agricultural and forestry products domestically. I am not a fan of rewilding which reminds me of people who want to learn and converse in dead languages and even require others to do so.

Andrew Holmes
AH
Andrew Holmes
1 year ago

As an American fan of “Doc Martin”, does this mean that it rains in Britain?

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
1 year ago

As an American fan of “Doc Martin”, does this mean that it rains in Britain?

Paul Hemphill
PH
Paul Hemphill
1 year ago

”once covering up to a fifth of Britain’s landmass, concentrated on the western seaboard where Atlantic rains still shroud the steep hills in mist and gloom, Britain’s temperate rainforests have been felled, grazed and overplanted so ruthlessly that they now cover less than 0.5% of the country”.
Recall the many place names in England that bear the suffix “in Arden”, meaning “great Forest”, finding its roots deep in the Forest of Arden. The home to myth, imagination, and literary inspiration. Sherwood Forest of Robin Hood fame once covered a good proportion of the north Midlands, though most of it was gone by the time of the Norman Conquest. The New Forest was likewise expansive.