There is a hidden wood near Guy Shrubsole’s home that glows with a verdant luminosity all year round. Its trees are familiar oaks but rendered stunted and strange by Atlantic gales and upland soils. To their contorted limbs cling lichens, mosses, liverworts and ferns – hundreds of multicoloured species that resemble coral reefs, with bewitching names from string-of-sausages to witches’ whiskers.
Shrubsole’s discovery of a surviving fragment of British rainforest close to his new home in Devon inspired him to write a book, The Lost Rainforests of Britain, which is published next week. “There’s something so alluring about this weird, gnarled, dripping, moss-encrusted ecosystem,” he says. “The fact that it sounds exotic but thrives very specifically on British weather is really magical. I wanted to re-enchant more people with the magic of the rainforest we have left in this country.”
As well as encouraging a popular rediscovery of this biodiverse and globally rare temperate rainforest, Shrubsole, an increasingly influential environmental campaigner, is calling for a national rainforest strategy and a target to double the 1% land area where surviving fragments of forest endure on Britain’s western fringes.
When Shrubsole established a blog, asking people to help record overlooked fragments of rainforest – often only existing as treeless “shadow woods” in the phrase of the ecologist Ian Rotherham – he was amazed by the response. A Guardian story about his rainforest fascination received more than 200,000 views, and yet more information from the public, and his book was born.
The positive response “is partly to do with the reawakening of people’s interest in nature we’ve seen over the last couple of years from lockdown walks to rebel botanists chalking the scientific names of weeds on pavements,” says Shrubsole, “but it also speaks to that deep-seated environmentalism that exists in Britain – a sense that we’ve lost something from our green and pleasant land. It lurks in our imagination – this idea of a great wood that spread over Britain. We can debate how extensive it was – whether it was wood pasture or closed canopy rainforest – but there’s no doubt we had many more trees than we do now.”
“Lost” rainforest is a romantic idea but Britain’s Atlantic temperate rainforest is a formal, scientifically recognised habitat – and globally scarcer than tropical rainforest. According to ecologists, “rainforest” is land receiving more than 1,400mm of rain each year with rain spread across the summer as well as winter. Temperate rainforest is cool but not cold, with July temperatures averaging 16C or less. “It’s the definition of a British summer holiday really,” says Shrubsole wryly.
It was not until 2016 that an ecologist, Dr Chris Ellis, calculated that 20% of Britain lay within the temperate rainforest zone, possessing ideal “bioclimatic conditions”. And yet, as Shrubsole has calculated, our native rainforest has been destroyed and erased from memory: today there are just 18,870 hectares (46,629 acres) in England.
Of Britain’s fragmentary rainforest, astonishingly Shrubsole reveals that just 27% is designated a special site of scientific interest, meaning the vast majority is unprotected. Even protected sites are damaged: according to Natural England, Johnny Wood, which Shrubsole visited in the Lake District, is in “unfavourable – declining” condition because of “widespread evidence of deer browsing, and continued encroachment by sheep” preventing the wood’s regeneration.
Shrubsole’s book could be a lament but instead it is suffused with the irrepressible positivity and cheerful enthusiasm of a born campaigner. Shrubsole has been an environmentalist since childhood, remembering his mum organising a “save the rainforests” party in his back garden in 1990 – when he was five – to raise money for Friends of the Earth’s Amazon campaign.
As an adult, he has worked as a campaigner for Friends of the Earth and Rewilding Britain but it was when he moved to Wales to work for a small charity, the Public Interest Research Centre, based in Machynlleth, that he discovered lost rainforests.
In Machynlleth he became friends with George Monbiot, who then lived in the town and was writing Feral at the time. Coming to realise that treeless Welsh hills were “sheep-wrecked” “certainly ruined some good walks for us,” says Shrubsole. It was Monbiot who first introduced Shrubsole to the stunning idea that Britain once had rainforest but had destroyed and then forgotten it.
Shrubsole’s book may be a re-enchantment but as a campaigner he has clear aims: he wants the British government to draw up a rainforest strategy. Rather than just protecting the final fragments, he is seeking restoration, and believes a realistic target is to double the 1% land area within a generation. This could be achieved, his mapping has shown, simply by allowing the fragments that remain to naturally regenerate on their fringes.
Extraordinarily, British rainforest was not mentioned in parliament until 2021 when – at Shrubsole’s behest – his local Conservative MP raised a question about its preservation in the House of Commons.
“There’s been some warm words from ministers so far but recently it’s got a lot more difficult,” he says. “If we do return to slightly more sensible government, a rainforest strategy is really needed, and would help with rainforest restoration efforts everywhere. It’s not just about protecting these sites but saying we’re doing our part towards the global mission to restore rainforests.”
As public awareness rises of the Instagrammable magic of these remaining fragments, one threat is increasing visitor numbers damaging rare and precious plant life. As Shrubsole acknowledges in his book, his local rainforest, Wistman’s Wood, is under pressure from visitors, with problems including litter and people “carving” patterns into its moss-covered rocks.
“I definitely want to convey the extreme importance of being very careful and treating these places with utmost respect. But we also have to be reconnected with nature,” says Shrubsole. “I rarely find any litter at Wistman’s Wood. That might be the wardens doing their job or it might just be actually that people are quite good and most don’t leave litter or carve silly spirals in the mosses on the rocks.
“It’s not a viable restoration strategy to wall them all off and hope that no one ever visits them. The solution to honeypot sites being overwhelmed is ultimately to create more of these amazing habitats.”
This segues to Shrubsole’s other role as co-founder of the Right to Roam campaign with the artist and writer Nick Hayes. They have organised more than half a dozen trespass events this year in their move to extend the Countryside and Rights of Way Act which permits roaming in just 8% of the English countryside and 3% of its rivers.
Caroline Lucas is introducing a private member’s bill on the issue and Shrubsole hopes to persuade all political parties to commit to it in their manifestos. Would a future Labour government widen access to the countryside? “I’m cautiously optimistic that Labour sees access to nature as being part of its legacy and its future. Labour brought in the National Parks Act and the original right to roam in 2000. A number of senior Labour people now see that as unfinished business. I would love Labour to say a lot more about the nature crisis and find its voice on that again because it clearly needs to.”
Shrubsole came to the Right to Roam campaign through his previous book, Who Owns England?, a dissection of the inequities of land ownership. “When I was writing Who Owns England? I constantly felt angry, but for this book I hope people feel a sense of infectious enthusiasm and optimism,” he says. “I genuinely feel that part of me has come alive again through exploring these places. They are just amazing and our route to some degree of redemption as well.”
• The Lost Rainforests of Britain by Guy Shrubsole is published by William Collins on 27 October