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Business and Finance

Bringing back Britain’s rainforests

Olivia Southey
The western shores of Britain have been described as 'temperate rainforest' - so shouldn't we be making the most of our wilderness?

If nature is allowed to really flourish in the UK, what will that look like?

The 2010 Making Space for Nature report states that ‘England now has very few habitats that have not been modified or even created by human actions….most are best described as “semi-natural” rather than “natural” habitats’.

What a bombshell: we are living on a dewilded island.

It’s in our nature

The answer to what a wild Britain might look like appeared in Feral by George Monbiot, in which he describes the natural state of the Western coast of the UK as temperate rainforest. Left to their own devices, unmanaged and ancient, our woodlands would evolve into rainforests; deep, rich places that support innumerable species and behave as lungs for the planet.

Yet in the UK we routinely slash and burn to maintain sparser habitats whilst condemning this behaviour elsewhere. We are actively preventing the potential of our woods and forests. When you do walk into older woodlands and see the lichens, ivy, fungi and ferns growing on trees, you start to feel what is here – latent and waiting to live. These plants-on-trees (known as ‘epiphytes’) combined with high rainfall, cooler summers and infrequent fires are key features of a temperate rainforest.

Temperate rainforests are a global habitat, but their current scarcity makes their return to our western shores even more tantalising. There are remnants of temperate rainforest on the West coast of Scotland. Scotland’s rainforests used to be extensive, but have been replaced by heaths and conifer plantations that harbour only a fraction of the fauna and flora. Temperate rainforests also accumulate uniquely high amounts of fertile organic matter: dead wood, leaf litter, moss, ground plants and soil. When the UK only has 100 years of harvests left in farmland soil because of erosion and loss of nutrients, perhaps we should be turning to trees instead of chemicals to improve our food security.

Wild mirrors

To reconnect people with the biodiversity of the UK is at the core of Hummingtree’s Biodiversity for Business scheme. Many of us work in an urban environment, which can lead to us becoming disconnected from the webs of life that are supporting every breath we take and bite we eat.

Perhaps this disconnection is the underlying reason why businesses do not place environmental concerns at the heart of their values or planning. Our approach is to engage companies with enabling nature to flourish. There’s often an adversarial relationship between activists and business, but polarisation wastes energy.

Re-rainforesting is a vision that looks seven generations into the future, but regenerating rich ecosystems can happen startlingly fast. Our debut project has transformed a piece of land in south Devon from a failed timber plantation into a mosaic of deciduous woodland, hedgerows, scrub, grassland and traditional orchard. Orchards support vast numbers of small mammals, birds, insects and wildflowers when they are not intensively managed. Biodiversity for Business will create a wild mirror of our members’ office footprints by offsetting their desks in biodiversity reserves like this.

We aren’t undoing urban development; we’re creating an opportunity for balance between the order and stimulation of work and the abundance and unpredictability of nature.

Olivia Southey is the director of Hummingtree, a social enterprise start-up dedicated to biodiversity in the UK. She’s also in the Libertine100: read her profile here@HummingtreeUK

Left to their own devices, our woodlands would evolve into rainforests; deep, rich places that support innumerable species and behave as lungs for the planet.