February 28, 2024

More than 100,000 trees are being planted in north Devon as part of efforts to boost temperate or Celtic rainforests, some of the UK’s most magical but endangered environments.

The trees are being planted close to surviving pockets of rainforest at two spots close to the coast and one inland.

Among the trees that will be planted is the almost-extinct Devon whitebeam, which is only found in the English West Country and in Ireland. It can reproduce without fertilisation, creating seeds that are genetic copies of itself. Its edible fruit used to be sold at Devon markets as “sorb apples” – celebrated in the DH Lawrence poem Medlars and Sorb-Apples (“I love you, rotten,/Delicious rottenness.”)

Helped by volunteers, schoolchildren and community groups, the National Trust is hoping to establish 50 hectares (123 acres) of new rainforest across three sites. About 38,000 trees will be planted near the sea on Exmoor, 20,000 at Woolacombe and Hartland, and 50,000 inland at Arlington Court, near Barnstaple.

Celtic rainforest is a key habitat for many rare mosses, liverworts, and lichens. Photograph: Paul Harris Photography/©National Trust Images/Paul Harris

Temperate rainforests, also known as Atlantic rainforests, are characterised by their damp conditions, making them the perfect home for a unique variety of rare ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens and wildlife including pine martens, pied flycatchers and stoats.

Over the centuries, the temperate rainforest, which used to run the length of the western seaboard of the UK, has deteriorated largely due to air pollution, invasive species, diseases such as ash dieback and general lack of care.

John Deakin, the head of trees and woodlands at the National Trust, said: “All that’s left are fragments, covering only 1% of Britain and limited to small patches in Devon, Cornwall, north and west Wales, Cumbria, the west of Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland.

“As a result, the rare specialist plants that depend on this habitat desperately cling to the remaining fragments for survival, with some of the woodlands we care for in north Devon containing nearly the entire global population of some of these species, such as the Devon whitebeam. Without urgent action, these unique plants could soon be facing extinction.

“We are working on expansion, rather than just preservation. This is important because the conditions many of these rare plants thrive in are not necessarily conducive to disturbance, which makes regeneration tricky. But, by planting on the edges of these existing woodlands, we can ease the pressure caused to the existing delicate vegetation and instead help the woodlands evolve outward.”

Bryony Wilde, project manager at Arlington Court, said: “Through this tree planting, we’re helping to create a living landscape where both nature and people can thrive. These trees will not only provide a habitat for wildlife but also fix carbon into the soil, purify air and water, and provide a place for people to enjoy.”

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Devon is a good place to experience a temperate rainforest, with places like Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor, an upland oakwood, cherished for its flora and enchanting feel.

Last year, Devon Wildlife Trust announced t it was planting a temperate rainforest in the south of the county, on the slopes above the River Dart.

The plight of the temperate rainforest has been highlighted by the writer and environmentalist Guy Shrubsole, who has been leading a project to map the surviving fragments.

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