Scotland's rainforests

Yes, we have them. And they're lovely

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It may come as a surprise to you that Scotland even has rainforests – it certainly did to me – yet these ancient, irreplicable habitats provide a home to some of the nation’s most elusive flora and fauna, and are the cornerstone of its vital biodiversity. Yet from climate change and invasive species to the encroachment of human development, Scotland’s rainforests face an unprecedented threat.

That’s why the RSPB is partnering in a major campaign to raise awareness of the forests and their plight, drumming up public support and lobbying government – particularly on the back of the COP26 environmental conference – to act now. We caught up with some of the organisation’s team on the ground, to learn more about Scotland’s rainforests, why they are so vital, and what can be done to protect them.

At the risk of sounding like an idiot, I first wanted to clarify exactly what a rainforest is. According to RSPB senior conservation officer Andy Robinson, all you really need is “trees and rain,” although “it’s a bit more complicated than that”.

“The term hyper-oceanicity is often applied to these areas because of their maritime climate,” he says. “So it's a very small area of the world’s surface, less than 1% of the land surface, mostly in Northwest Europe; a little bit in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, some in Patagonia and Northwest Canada, Japan… Low seasonal fluctuations in temperature are a hallmark, because frost can obviously really damage these low plants. You also need a lot of micro habitats, because a lot of these plants and lichens are really fussy. You get some which prefer a north facing aspect, or will only grow in ravines where you've got waterfalls, and that persistent high humidity. So they’re complex and delicate ecosystems.”


According to Andy, these habitats simply weren’t a focus for conservation. While they used to be managed and valued as a resource, both for wood production and then charcoal, once those industries declined, the forests fell into neglect and were gradually fragmented by changing land use and grazing. 

 “So my role as kind of conservation officer is to look at the key habitats in my area, trying to develop projects within them and trying to find funding. So for example, I spent a lot of lockdown pursuing a project to save Morven’s rainforest; because it’s on a peninsula, it’s more easily defensible against invasive Rhododendron, which blocks out light for native low plants and lichens, many of which are rare on a global scale.”

While there’s no doubt that Scotland’s rainforests are priceless from a scientific standpoint, it’s also important to understand just how stunningly beautiful they are, and how much they contribute to making Scotland’s natural landscape one of the most precious on Earth. The gnarled, ancient oaks of Glenborrodale on the Ardnamurchan peninsula seem woven into the land, with limbs dipping into a carpet of moss, only to emerge again several metres away. Tree, lichen, fungus, moss and earth become almost indistinguishable, giving a sense that this is one single organism of many parts. Which, in a sense, it is.

“It’s a very tactile place,” says RSPB information officer Izzy Baker. “You don't just see an oak tree in isolation - you have all these incredible epiphytes, all the things that are living on the tree that make this habitat really special. There's all sorts of ferns and mosses and lichens, which in turn provides a habitat for diverse insect life. So we have butterflies like the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which is a very important, protected species. Then we have Scottish wildcats and pine martens; species that are tricky to spot. 


“Spring and Summer is probably the best time to see it in its prime, where you've got all the breeding bird assemblages. It's full of birdsong, with Woodpeckers and Tree Pipits; the whole forest is completely alive. We love to see people visiting these sites, and in Glenborrodale we have a forest walk so you can really experience the heart of the forest. It’s hard to get across what a magical place it is unless you’ve actually seen it.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

The work that RSPB is doing to protect Scotland’s rainforests goes far beyond birdlife – indeed the ‘birds’ in the charity’s name is almost misleading, in the sense that the organisation takes a much more sophisticated whole-ecosystem view of conservation. By becoming a member, you not only contribute much-needed resources for projects like defending Morven from invasive Rhododendron, but also lend your name and your voice when the charity is lobbying government and funding bodies. www.rspb.org.uk

You can also donate specifically to the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest, in which RSPB is a key partner, to see your money going directly into the high-impact projects run by passionate people like Andy and Izzy. savingscotlandsrainforest.org.uk

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