November 17, 2022

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.