‘Hidden gems’: Rainforests still exist in the UK

Short tan ridges sprout from the branch next to me. The growth looks like coral fused with baby’s fingers.

The hazel glove mushroom savors the mysterious flavors lurking in our rainforests.

Yes, “our” rainforests. They exist in the UK, once covering about a fifth of the country but now reduced to a necklace of fragmented green jewels along our western border.

These are temperate rainforests that depend on at least one meter of precipitation each year and are also found on the Pacific Ocean coasts of Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and North West America.

For thousands of years, our rainforests have fallen victim to our appetite for timber, charcoal and grazing land, so they now cover only 1% of Britain, largely confined to steep valleys and sheltered islands isolated from livestock.

My guide to these hidden gems is Guy Shrubsole, author of a new book called Britain’s Lost Rainforests.

We set off through Dartmoor towards Longash Forest in a very relevant weather: rain is drizzling on the roads and foaming the rivers.

But the landscape seems hopeless at first: open, blasted steppe, occasionally divided by tor and stone walls.

However, as we descend into a valley, the heath gives way to the undergrowth, and the woodland grows quietly around us. Until it’s in the middle.

Mr.

It’s hard to overstate the pleasant quirkiness of the place. It’s like we’ve stepped into the realm of Celtic folklore that intersects with familiar Hollywood visions: Jurassic Park, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

We are here in the middle of winter, but the forest is very lush. Moss covers every rock, lichens hairs most branches, and fungi ooze from the leaf litter.

It may lack the noisy monkeys or eerie creepy reptiles of its tropical cousins, but it reflects the density of flora and fauna.

Mr. Shrubsole gives me an expert’s guide to what’s going on here.

“There are about 500 species of lichens and 160 species of mosses and liverworts that thrive in such places.

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“Here, polypody ferns grow on trees, also known as epiphytes, plants grow on other plants, and that’s what characterizes Britain’s rainforests – it’s wet enough for plants to grow on other people’s trunks.”

As we wander, fascinating green shapes and “sausage string” lichens distract the eye from the more pressing task of avoiding the deepest, muffling puddles. The trees here are mostly gnarled Atlantic oaks, hazel and gorse, home to many more.

“This is peltigera, or dog lichen. It gets its name from what looks like small sharp teeth on the underside. But a little further down, it’s a fish when you rub it,” Mr. Shrubsole added.

Year-round, these habitats can host migratory birds such as the pied flycatcher, forest warbler, redtail, and the rare checkered skipper butterfly.

Mr.

Shrinking farmland even on marginal land is always controversial, and allowing trees to naturally regenerate requires excluding fenced or armed deer as well.

“If we do that, we can double their area within a generation, take these little bits and let them spread. That’s something we need the government to aim to do.”

Who knew we had rainforests that you could see, smell, and truly feel without having to go all the way to the Amazon?

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