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7 December 2022

Discovering Britain’s lost rainforests

The environmentalist Guy Shrubsole on saving our ancient woods.

By India Bourke

Wistman’s Wood: even the name of this ancient oak-tree grove on Dartmoor seems to conjure spirits. As someone who grew up nearby, I remember tales of hellhounds and spectral riders winding through its twisted trees – perfect fodder for sleepovers. Yet more than the ghosts, it was the wood itself – an other-worldly tangle of low-hanging branches laden with moss and lichens – that fascinated us: it seemed a portal to the past, so mysterious that it made the very idea of a phantom hunt seem plausible. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but Wistman’s Wood has another secret: it is one of Britain’s few remaining fragments of temperate rainforest. The area’s warm, wet climate is the ideal host for woods kept evergreen by fountains of polypody ferns and layers of epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants). These richly biodiverse ecosystems once covered around a fifth of the nation, but an investigation by the influential campaigner Guy Shrubsole has revealed that today they account for just “half a per cent” of Britain.

To save our rainforests, we first need to remember they exist, Shrubsole told me when we met recently on Dartmoor’s barren, sheep-dotted hills. “There’s a fetishisation of the unnaturally high numbers of sheep in the Lake District, or supposedly ‘traditional’ farming practices on Dartmoor,” he said. Actually, those sheep populations are the result of “modern ‘traditions’ that have been invented… I would love to see us restore cultural landscapes that existed in previous eras of human history: why not revere the cultural landscape of the Celts? Or even the cultural landscape that existed when Wordsworth was ambling about the Lake District – not just daffodils and sheep, but the ferns and mosses that he also writes about in his guidebooks and poems.”

His new book, The Lost Rainforests of Britain, unearths the deep roots that this kind of ancient woodland has in our collective imagination. From Celtic druids (the word means “oak-seer”) to the Romantic poets and JRR Tolkien’s Ents, the nation’s temperate rainforests have exerted a strong pull throughout centuries of storytelling. “The loss of cultural memory, this great forgetting that we once had rainforests, is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves,” Shrubsole writes. The British countryside of today “is, in reality, a desert compared to the glory that once existed. There were giants on the Earth in those days.”

Shrubsole’s bestselling first book, Who Owns England?, exposed uncomfortable truths about who owns and controls land. His latest offering delves even deeper: using old place names, court records, literary riches and crowd-sourced data, among other strategies, to bring to light a natural inheritance that has been lost to almost everyone.

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The 37-year-old environmentalist pursues his campaign with a nerdy enthusiasm and a sprite-like lightness of touch (in this way, he is similar to the actor and amateur historian Tony Robinson – Shrubsole was a devoted viewer of Robinson’s Time Team as a child). As our clamber over Dartmoor neared a rainforest fragment, his tall, lithe figure – dressed in jeans and a tattered Barbour jacket – bounded down the hillside to the wooded valley as if pulled towards it. On reaching the valley’s edge, he threw his arms out like the branches of the oaks behind him. “Let’s go deeper,” he said, “where it’s gnarlier!”

Was he ever unnerved, I asked, by being in such ancient woods alone? He did once briefly think he saw a hellhound, he tells me, on a misty afternoon when there was a “pale, milky translucence to the air above the misshapen boulders”. But generally he finds London scarier. More concerning, he explains, is the way our culture has encouraged us to fear our natural landscape. He cites the UK’s anti-rewilding voices, such as Chris Loder, the Conservative MP for West Dorset, who recently claimed that reintroduced white-tailed eagles will prey on farmers’ lambs, an idea Shrubsole considers “ridiculous”.

While Shrubsole thinks rewilding should be as much about restoring lichens and liverworts (the “stuff beavers chew on”) as it is about apex predators, he also believes our attitudes towards reintroducing bigger beasts need to change. “How patronising and elitist is it to expect a large chunk of the world’s population [to live near tigers], and not be prepared to have a few lynx and wolves living in our own landscape again?” 

One way to refamiliarise ourselves with the species that once roamed the length and breadth of the British landscape is to revisit the tales of our past, Shrubsole said. “We need to reconcile ourselves with the Grimms’ Fairy Tales vision of the wolf eating grandma; we need to find and retell the legends that celebrate some of those creatures more – such as the Celtic stories in which humans transform themselves into animals.”

This ability to attest to the wider value of landscape recovery, rather than focusing only on the detail, could be key to winning over divided rural opinion. When Shrubsole and I met at the end of August, Liz Truss’s short-lived stint as prime minister was about to begin. The steps she took to weaken environmental protections and roll back schemes supporting nature-friendly farming led some groups, including the Wildlife Trusts and the RSPB, to declare her leadership an “attack on nature”. How much of this Rishi Sunak will overturn is still unclear – but with no mention of nature restoration or agricultural reform in Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement, damage to the environment could turn out to be one of the longest-lasting tragedies of the cost-of-living crisis.

To counteract the effects of decline and stagnation, Shrubsole is pushing for a “great British rainforests strategy”, in which the government would set aside funds to pay farmers to protect and restore such woodlands across the country. Rainforests’ hyper-biodiversity and scalability mean they make ideal focal points for wider nature recovery schemes, he argues in his book. But will he succeed? A former employee of Friends of the Earth, Shrubsole is a shrewd activist. The Right to Roam campaign that he co-founded with the writer and illustrator Nick Hayes has given its name to a bill that has been tabled in parliament by the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, and his work on rainforests is attracting interest from across the political spectrum – from Lucas to Tory ministers. A private members’ Ecology Bill, designed to strengthen the government’s biodiversity commitments, could also help preserve the country’s ancient woods. 

“The pastoral idyll that we project – the idea of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’, a wonderful union of people and nature – certainly hasn’t been true in the last century and probably longer. So we need to find a new way of relating to nature which is more in tune with it.”

In identifying rainforests as a key to regreening the British countryside, Shrubsole’s campaign should appeal both to those who are nostalgic for times gone by and those more concerned with the future, and the needs of a changing climate. Restoring our rainforests could also send a powerful message to the world, he suggests: that instead of simply encouraging tropical nations to find space for nature, we are ready to right the wrongs of Britain’s industrial past as well.  “We started the Industrial Revolution, but we’ve also been one of the primary nations driving biodiversity decline. So we’re facing our demons.” By revisiting the remnants of our once magnificent rainforests, suggests Guy Shrubsole, we might finally lay those demons to rest.

[See also: Can the Amazon rainforest be saved from environmental destruction?]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special