Britain has a rainforest – and it’s in trouble

Few realise a rare habitat with a name more associated with the tropics exists in the UK – but it does. And it's hanging on by a root.

Ancient hazel trees in a temperate rainforest habitat, Morvern Peninsula, Scotland. 

Photograph by Vivien Cumming
By Vivien Cumming
Published 21 Apr 2022, 23:19 BST

As I walk into the forest, I’m struck by how intensely green it is. Ferns grow from tree trunks, and water droplets settle on the moss that blankets the understorey and crawls its way softly into the tree’s highest branches. From these crinkly lichens dangle, looking more like something from a fantasy than the reality in front of me.

I’m not describing a tropical rainforest, though I could be. This is in fact Scotland’s rainforest – one of nature’s little known and undervalued ecosystems, now in danger of being lost forever. Only 30,000 hectares of this habitat remain in Scotland, an area roughly the same size as Edinburgh. It makes up only 2% of Scotland’s woodland cover.

The West Coast of Scotland is known for its high levels of rainfall, and while this is often a complaint among locals and tourists it’s what makes it the perfect place for a temperate rainforest. The moist oceanic climate, year-round mild temperatures and clean air allow for the woodlands up and down the west coast to be ideal temperate rainforest habitats.

Patches of temperate rainforest occur along the west coast, such as this at Loch Arkaig, near Fort William.

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

Lichens cover ancient hazel trees on the Morvern peninsula. Lichens are extremely slow-growing and can be indicative of ancient woodland that hasn't suffered coppicing or other human-led management. 

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

Sitka spruce seedlings – from fast-growing non-native trees introduced as a plantation timber resource – spring up all over Scotland's landscape and can out-compete native species.

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

”We are so used to rainforests being a tropical term, but temperate ones are just as fascinating and full of rare species of plants, with new species being discovered all the time,” says Oliver Moore, bryophytes and lichens advisor for the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest, a partnership of organisations working to conserve these unique habitats. “We know much less about these rainforests as they have been extensively deforested. What we do know is that they are extremely restricted habitats globally, covering less than 1% of the planet.”

The most well-known examples of temperate rainforest are on the west coast of Canada or New Zealand. In the UK, it’s not just Scotland that has a rainforest – there are also small patches in the Lake District, north Wales and south-west England, and the potentially suitable climatic zones are much larger. While the reality is currently very different, a 2016 study showed that these rainforests could cover 20% of Britain. So poorly known and fragmented is this habitat that author and campaigner Guy Shrubsole is encouraging people to report patches of Britain’s lost rainforest to reignite interest in the conservation of this ancient habitat – and find areas that might be unknown.

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Left: Top:

Mosses and lichens cover the forest floor in ancient hazel rainforest. The term 'rainforest' is used simply to indicate a forest which experiences high amounts of rainfall. This can be tropical, or temperate. A temperate rainforest is believed to have once flourished in pre-ice sheet Antarctica.

Right: Bottom:

Mossy oaks in a rainforest stand in Argyll. Many species – from birch, to hazel to oak and Scots pine – make up some of the old growth forests, which are characterised by generations of seed fall, rot and understorey development.  

photographs by Vivien Cumming

What makes a rainforest?

The plants that really make this environment special are epiphytes. Put simply, these are plants that like to grow on other plants – the ones you see shrouding the trees, so much so that you can barely see the bark of the ancient oaks, hazels, and ash trees that make up these native woodlands. The epiphytes here are mosses and liverworts (bryophytes) and lichens.

When following Oliver Moore into the rainforest his face erupts with wonder and excitement. He enthusiastically moves from tree to tree pointing out wonderful looking lichen and bryophyte species with captivating names like octopus-suckers (Collema fasciculare), floury dog-lichen (Peltigera collina), blobby jelly-skin (Leptogium brebissonii), toothed pouncewort (Drepanolejeunea hamatifolia), and dwarf neckera (Neckera pumilla).

He describes prickly featherwort (Plagiochila spinulosa), a rare endemic liverwort to most of Europe but that can be relatively common in the rainforests of Britain and Ireland. I’m lucky enough to see the white script lichen (Fissurina alboscripta), a species endemic to Scotland’s rainforest. This lichen has not been found anywhere else in the world, and even here is only known from ancient stands of hazel that have never been coppiced.

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“Even now, the rainforests are threatened by the renewed interest from investors in buying Scottish land and forests for carbon offsetting projects.”

Moore explains that the sheer abundance and diversity of the species found here make this unique habitat internationally important.

“We have the best remaining [temperate rainforest] sites in all of Europe. Over 500 lichens have been recorded from Scotland's rainforest and we have an international responsibility for around 100 of these lichen species. Bryophyte biodiversity is also impressive here – it is not impossible to find 200+ species in a single ravine.” He adds: “These rainforests are a globally significant habitat faced with multiple large-scale threats and if we don’t take action, we face the risk of losing this important habitat completely.”

I may not recognise the individual species but I can tell that I am somewhere unique. When it takes an hour to find just a small patch of this rainforest, I become very conscious of how rare it is. I grew up in Scotland and had no idea these incredible places existed.

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Old forest, new name

Gordon Gray Stephens has been working in management of these woodlands for over 30 years. He explains that before the 1990s, the native woodlands on the west coast weren’t recognised as rainforest. Then, scientists started finding more and more unique species.

In particular the husband-and-wife lichenologists Brian and Sandy Coppins, from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, realised that lichen communities documented in tropical rainforests were also on the west coast of Scotland. It has really only been the last 10 years that these habitats have been called rainforest, and we are only now realising quite how important they are globally.

This image, taken in Argyll, shows the striking contrast between the biodiversity of a plantation of Sitka Spruce (right) and old growth forest (left.)  Unfortunately seed fall from plantation forest can spread to rainforest, with rapid growth, high-yield spruce outcompeting and shadowing the more ancient woodland. 

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

“Once you've walked into a rainforest on the west coast of Scotland, there will be no doubt in your mind that Scotland has a rainforest.”

Gordon Gray Stephens

“Scotland's forests were heavily deforested and fragmented from the 18th century onwards as a clan-based society transitioned into a society where money and growth were more important than nature,” says Stephens. This, he explains, was a switch that made industrial outputs such as charcoal and sheep from the land the focus. Pressure mounted after the Second World War with a focus on building a strategic timber reserve, which meant that forestry switched from managing native species to managing and planting exotic species – in particular Sitka Spruce – on a large scale. “21% of Scotland’s rainforests are ancient woodland sites that have been planted with exotic conifers,” Stephens adds. “Even now, the rainforests are threatened by the renewed interest from investors in buying Scottish land and forests for carbon offsetting projects. As a result the price of land is driven up, presenting problems for communities and rainforest management.”

(How to erase a century of carbon emissions? Plant trees – lots of them.)

The main threats to Scotland's existing rainforest are overgrazing – 80% of which is done by deer – invasive plant species, ash dieback and climate change. More than 40% of rainforest sites have levels of grazing that are so high, it is limiting their long-term survival. Another 40% of Scotland’s rainforest is being choked by Rhododendron ponticum. The shrub colonises woodland fast, out-competes native trees and shades out rare plants, resulting in significant biodiversity loss. Just to add further pressure, climate change is predicted to shrink the narrow climatic zone that this rainforest relies upon.

Volunteer Charlie Mercer working with Alasdair Firth, who lives on the Morvern peninsula and works for the Woodland Trust, to remove the invasive species Rhododendron ponticum.

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

The 'green-ness' – along with species density – of the rainforest stands, such as this oak forest in Inverlonan, Argyll, is immediately evident when walking through the woodland. 

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

Invasive species such as Rhododendron ponticum, which was introduced to Britain in the 18th century, have caused dramatic damage to native woodlands, where they have spread out of control. Here Raleigh International volunteers work with the local community on the Morvern peninsula to remove the shrub from the rainforest. 

Photograph by Vivien Cumming

Hope in conservation

Last summer eighteen year-old Tamsin Scott volunteered for Raleigh Internationals Re:Green project, an initiative bringing young volunteers together with local communities to help protect the rainforest. “I knew that Scotland had a temperate forest, but I didn’t know it was actually rainforest. It’s been interesting to learn about how rhododendron blocks out light in the rainforest and stops anything around it from growing. We have been clearing the rhododendron to allow oak and hazel saplings to take the space, as well as felling ash trees which have diseased fungus called ash dieback.”

Julie Young from the Argyll Coast and Countryside Trust is seeing first-hand how these unique habitats are valuable to the local community; ‘Argyll is incredibly fortunate to be home to more than half of Scotland’s Rainforest and our work to protect it is social as well as environmental,” she says. “As we work in partnership with agencies, communities and businesses to remove invasive non-native plants and to plant new native trees, we are seeing communities coming together, new employment opportunities and increased health and wellbeing, as access to this inspiring habitat is improved.”

Young adds: ‘The scale of the work required can appear overwhelming and it’s incredible to see rainforest clusters start to expand and link, and children learning in the forest. There is a strong desire to protect and restore these habitats for future generations. It isn’t just about the rainforest, it’s about our connection to it as well.’

It’s undeniable this connection to nature is deeply rooted in Scottish culture. Here, discovering and restoring this rainforest appears to be helping people to find it again. At a time when we are recognising the importance of biodiversity for human and planetary health, this rare and fragile rainforest ecosystem is not only a magical place for people to enjoy, it also locks up carbon and provides a vital home for species of plants, some of which occur nowhere else on Earth. 

It's collectively felt amongst those fighting to protect this environment that the rainforest may offer Scotland a unique opportunity to help slow the climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. In addition, restoring and expanding this unique habitat will provide jobs, protect the environment and allow people to enjoy the magic of the rainforest for generations to come.

As Gordon Gray Stephens asserts, ‘once you've walked into a rainforest on the west coast of Scotland, there will be no doubt in your mind that Scotland has a rainforest. These are very special places.’

Dr Vivien Cumming is an earth scientist, film producer, writer and photographer based in Edinburgh. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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