Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

lost rainforests

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“In England, trees grow where people have not prevented them”

Britain was once a rainforest nation. Large swathes of the western edges – up to one fifth of the total land mass – used to be covered in temperate rainforest. Small pockets still remain but even these are under threat. Industrial farming practices, invasive species such as rhododendron, and man’s thoughtless squandering of his life support system for short-term pleasure or gain all wreak destruction on habitats that have value beyond financial considerations. Sadly, few pay attention.

“this great forgetting that we once had rainforests is almost as heartbreaking as the loss of the forests themselves. It points to a phenomenon that ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: society’s ability to grow accustomed to environmental losses.”

In 2020 Guy Shrubsole moved from London to Devon. Here he discovered that Dartmoor, his new local area, still contained fragments of an important ecosystem he had previously been unaware existed. This book documents the investigation he undertook to find and attempt to map Britain’s lost rainforests, and to work out what would need to be done to bring at least some of them back again.

“The biblical story of the Fall – that we once lived in paradise, but lost it due to our sins – remains a powerful narrative”

The opening chapter introduces the reader to what a temperate rainforest is. Here, and throughout the book, a great deal of detail is included about the unusual plant species supported when they are left alone to flourish. This naming and explaining slowed the unfolding narrative but proved necessary if the extensive value of this habitat is to be understood. Man too quickly considers value as monetary when it is becoming increasingly clear that nature offers more important health benefits, both physical and mental.

“A visit to a rainforest feels to me like going into a cathedral. Sunlight streams through the stained-glass windows of translucent leaves, picking out the arches of tree trunks with their halos of moss. They’re places that at once teem with life, and yet have a sepulchral stillness to them.”

As the quest progresses there is mention of the cultural significance of these ancient forests – the myths passed down through history and the inspiration provided for more modern writers. Both Conan Doyle and Tolkien wove the awe and mystery of the rainforest environment into their most famous stories.

The medicinal properties to be derived from certain plants therein are, somewhat worryingly, being recognised by those whose interest may not be entirely wholesome.

“The old-man’s beard lichen contains usnic acid, which is considered more effective than penicillin against some bacteria. We’ve only just touched on the capacity of these organisms. One recent review of the pharmaceutical properties of lichens concluded they represent ‘an untapped source of biological activities of industrial importance”

If rainforests are to be protected and allowed to regenerate, the public need to be made aware of them. This raises the potential problem of increasing visitor numbers to small and fragile woodlands. Support is needed but also protection. It is, after all, possible to love a fabulous place to death.

As well as exploring Dartmoor, the author visits fragments of rainforests in the Lake District, across Wales and then Scotland. These areas suffer similar problems. Vast tracts of former rainforest have been ‘sheepwrecked’. Scotland especially is plagued by increasing numbers of deer introduced by wealthy landowners who regard shooting the creatures as a fun activity. In trying to curb numbers of these damaging grazers, advocates of rewilding – often incomers – have clashed with the local community, especially farmers. For rainforests to flourish there needs to be both funding and collaboration.

“The truth is that there is more than enough space in Wales, as there is in the rest of Britain, both for farming to continue and for more rainforests to flourish. But it needs to be a different type of farming: fewer sheep, a shift to cattle and swine, and more space for nature to thrive on the least productive land.”

The unfolding chapters set out how land use constantly changes over time, offering hope that nature can heal if shielded from potential damage and then left to do so. There is also a degree of despair that man too often looks out only for personal gain in the short term. Wider issues are so rarely understood or listened to.

Dormant rainforest returns if conditions are conducive. This means minimal management, not the mass tree planting that introduces nursery raised, non native woodland prone to diseases. Allowing plants to return is only a part of the story. Successful rewilding also requires birdlife and mammals, including predators. Although controversial in certain circles, a compelling case for this is included.

“what we fail to perceive, we often fail to protect”

It is fascinating to consider that Britain could support an ecosystem as important as the Amazon – if the will were there to do at home what many have campaigned for in Brazil. Shrubsole makes a compelling case for how this may be achieved, although points out it would require long term thinking along with legal protections and landowner support. He writes with passion, providing detailed endnotes listing sources and references to scientific studies – a clarion call not to repeat mistakes made in the past.

Any Cop?: A timely and important reminder that intervention is required to protect and restore ecosystems necessary to support all life on earth. Rainforests may be just one piece of this puzzle, but the abundance of their benefits is made clear in this engagingly informative work.

Jackie Law

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One comment on “Book Review: The Lost Rainforests of Britain

  1. Mick Canning says:

    An important book on an important subject. You mentioned value – it’s worth reflecting that the root meaning of the word is health or strength, rather than anything monetary.

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