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Scotland’s rainforest: why it’s special and where to find it

We all know there’s plenty of rain in Scotland, but did you know it has rainforest too?

Scotland’s rainforest, also known as Atlantic woodland or the Celtic rainforest, is found along the west coast and on the inner isles. This unique habitat of ancient oak, birch, ash, pine and hazel woodland is made even more diverse by open glades, boulders, crags, ravines and river gorges. 

It’s a wonderful place. But it is also at risk and we need to save it. We’re working hard to do just that, but we need your help. Here’s why – and how - you can do your bit.

Rainforests are rare and important

Unfortunately Scotland’s rainforest is a wee bit scarcer than Scotland’s rain! You may need a magnifying glass to experience it fully, but Scotland’s rainforest is as lush and important as the tropical rainforest. But it is far rarer.

The trees are dripping with moisture and bejeweled with a spectacular array of lichens, fungi, mosses, liverworts and ferns.  Many are nationally and globally rare. Some can’t be found anywhere else in the world. 

High humidity and low temperature create perfect conditions for moisture-loving mosses and liverworts Our rainforests (Photo: Stan Phillips/Scottish Natural Heritage)
High humidity and low temperature create perfect conditions for moisture-loving mosses and liverworts Our rainforests (Photo: Stan Phillips/Scottish Natural Heritage)

Wood warbler and the redstart flit through the canopy and the air is filled with the fluttering of insects and butterflies. From below ground to beyond the treetops, these special places are brimming with life.

They are also an important part of our history, culture, nature and economy. That alone is a good enough reason to look after them. 

How much rainforest is there in Scotland?

We have less than 93,000 hectares of native woodland within the ‘oceanic zone’ on the west coast of Scotland. That’s a smaller area than the Orkney Islands.

Only a third or so of those are ‘key sites’ – those areas home to the rare and unique rainforest communities that make this habitat so important.

And the woodlands that do remain are small, fragmented and failing to thrive. They are often threatened by overgrazing, invasive species and poor management.

Wildlife depends on these woods

Our rainforests are one of the most biodiverse habitats in the UK. The high humidity and low temperature range create perfect conditions for moisture-loving lichens and bryophytes, also known as mosses and liverworts. A healthy rainforest can contain 200 species of bryophytes and 100-200 species of lichen.

Tree lungwort is one of the most recognisable lichens (Photo: Jill Donnachie/WTML)
Tree lungwort is one of the most recognisable lichens (Photo: Jill Donnachie/WTML)

Perhaps the most recognisable lichen is tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria). This large, leafy lichen literally looks like the lungs of the forest.

Lots of other interesting wildlife lives in the rainforest too, including:

  • hazel gloves fungus
  • pied flycatcher
  • tree pipit
  • chequered skipper butterfly.

Some of the species found in Scotland's rainforest are globally scarce and we have an international responsibility to protect them.

Hazel gloves fungus is a flagship species for the Atlantic hazelwood habitat (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)
Hazel gloves fungus is a flagship species for the Atlantic hazelwood habitat (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)

Why is Scotland’s rainforest threatened?

Atlantic woodland is temperate rather than tropical.  It thrives in ‘oceanic’ climates where temperatures are mild, rainfall is high and the air is clean. Rainforest was once found along the Atlantic coast of Europe. But over time we have cleared it. Our cities, cars and industries have since polluted the air around it.

The Scottish rainforest on the west coast of Scotland hasn’t suffered from these pressures on the same scale, and it’s now the last stronghold in Europe. But challenges remain, including:

  • climate change
  • diseases like ash dieback
  • uncertainty over how rural areas and woods in particular will be supported in the future.

We have a global responsibility to tackle these threats and save our Scottish rainforest.

Species like the chequered skipper butterfly need our help (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)
Species like the chequered skipper butterfly need our help (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)

Our report reveals worrying numbers

The Woodland Trust has been instrumental in creating the Atlantic Woodland Alliance. This voluntary partnership of 16 organisations has a shared interest in saving Scotland’s rainforest. Members include John Muir Trust, The National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, RSPB Scotland and The Scottish Wildlife Trust.

Together, we have published the State of Scotland’s Rainforest report, which showed:

  • more than 40% of key rainforest sites are so heavily grazed (mainly by deer) that they are unlikely to regenerate themselves.
  • 12,000 hectares of key rainforest sites are affected by invasive rhododendron. The plant threatens to smother the woodlands and the wildlife that makes them so special. 
  • 1 in 5 key rainforest woodlands has been planted with exotic conifers such as Sitka spruce. These trees threaten to outcompete native species.
  • rainforest fragments are tiny – most are smaller than 25 hectares – and not large enough to be self-sustaining.
  • almost half of the rainforest shows little or no regeneration at all.
Invasive rhododendron affects thousands of hectares of rainforest habitat (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)
Invasive rhododendron affects thousands of hectares of rainforest habitat (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)

It’s not too late to save it

There is still time to reverse the decline and save the rainforest. We have developed a strategy to help deliver Scotland’s commitments to wildlife conservation and forestry.

It could also help bring social, cultural and economic opportunities to Scotland’s west coast by helping to:

  • improve public health
  • deliver land reform
  • contribute to education.

The Alliance will work hard to save these habitats. But we can’t do it alone. If you are a landowner, business, organisation or funding partner interested in getting involved, please contact AdamHarrison@woodlandtrust.org.uk.

Experience the magic of the rainforest for yourself

One action we can all take is to visit and appreciate these special places. Absorb the atmosphere, learn what makes them so unique and help us raise awareness of just how incredible Scotland’s rainforest is. You can also check out Plantlife Scotland’s Secrets of the Celtic rainforest project.

Experience Scotland's incredible rainforest first-hand (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)
Experience Scotland's incredible rainforest first-hand (Photo: Doug Shapley/WTML)

Here are some of our favourite sites open to the public:

  • Crinan Wood, Argyll & Bute: ancient Atlantic oakwood dripping with rare ferns, moss and lichen. Brimming with wildlife and with sweeping vistas across the loch.
  • Uig Woods, Isle of Skye: a fringe of mature woodland along the shore of Uig Bay and two steep-sided ravine woodlands. In a largely treeless landscape, Uig Woods are important for their aesthetic value and the rainforest flora and fauna they support.
  • Dunollie Wood, Oban, Argyll & Bute: ancient woodland with Atlantic oakwood, hazel and birch. Home to a spectacular range of plants, ferns, mosses, lichens and flowers.
  • Ballachuan Hazelwood, Seil Island, Argyll (Scottish Wildlife Trust): cloaking a low ridge overlooking Cuan Sound, this wood supports lots of lichen, bryophytes and fungi. Wetland provides a rich habitat for butterflies, and deer and pine marten roam the woodland.
  • Dalavich Oakwood, Argyll (Forestry and Land Scotland): ancient Atlantic oakwoods full of mosses, ferns and wildlife and with great views over Loch Awe.
  • Inversnaid Nature Reserve, Loch Lomond (RSPB Scotland): on the loch’s east shore, Atlantic oak woodland rises steeply and gives way to open moorland with spectacular views.
  • Balmacara Estate, Kyle of Lochalsh (National Trust for Scotland): a crofting estate with an array of wildlife and plants, including otters, pine martens, red squirrels and the ancient oak woodland of the Coille Mhòr.
  • Taynish National Nature Reserve, Argyll (Scottish Natural Heritage): an amazing landscape of oak woodlands, grassland glades, heath, saltmarsh and shoreline. Trees have stood here for more than 6,000 years. Teeming with wildlife and magical mosaics of mosses and lichens.

 

Help us protect our rainforest

Early in 2019, the Woodland Trust bought Ben Shieldaig in the West Highlands. It is home to a rainforest that supports some of the world’s rarest lichens, liverworts and oceanic bryophytes. It’s part of a landscape threatened by human impact and high deer numbers.

Ben Shieldaig is home to some of the world’s rarest lichens, liverworts and oceanic bryophytes (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)
Ben Shieldaig is home to some of the world’s rarest lichens, liverworts and oceanic bryophytes (Photo: Philip Formby/WTML)

We need to raise £3.4 million to fulfil our vision for Ben Shieldaig. This will enable us to plant, protect and regenerate the wood over the next 20 years, helping Ben Shieldaig and its wildlife to thrive and flourish. It’s a huge task – but it will be worth the wait. Please give what you can. Every pound you give will make a difference.

Help keep Scotland's natural heritage alive

Donate to the Ben Shieldaig appeal