Trading places – swapping the tropical rainforests of Borneo for the UK's lost temperate rainforests
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
Cam Goodhead is a Masters by Research student for Dr Kimberley Hockings, working in collaboration with Borneo Nature Foundation to research Bornean orangutan nesting behaviour and the use of drones to survey orangutans in the peat-swamp forests of Central Kalimantan. You can follow him as @CamGoodhead on Twitter and @CamWildPhotography on Instagram.
In the depths of Cornish temperate rainforest - Photo by Cam Goodhead
For researchers working at foreign field sites, it’s fair to say the past two years have been far from easy. For my Masters by Research degree, I was supposed to be focusing on the use of drones for surveying Bornean orangutans in the tropical peat-swamp rainforests of Central Kalimantan. Sadly, after having my first proper fieldwork season in Borneo cut extremely short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, over the past two years I have had to be continuously evaluating and re-evaluating research plans, ideas, and general life choices. In the end, I realised that despite my mid-2020 optimism (or naivety) in thinking that things would surely sort themselves out fairly quickly (spoiler alert – they didn’t), it was still looking unlikely that I would be able to make it out to Borneo in the foreseeable future. I made the tough decision to instead postpone my Masters for a year and attempt to get some experience working in UK conservation instead.
During the first lockdown in 2020, like many others, I forged a deeper connection with the nature on my doorstep, helpfully aided by one of the nicest, warmest springs in my lifetime. Throughout this period, I worked hard on improving my knowledge about UK natural history, but the more I learned, the more a re-occurring theme started to emerge. I became increasingly aware of the dire current status of UK nature and the steep population declines that much of our wildlife were suffering, from farmland birds to butterflies - even the nation’s favourite mammal, the hedgehog. I was shocked that for a nation of self-proclaimed wildlife-lovers, we rank as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Not only this but we are also one of the least forested countries in Europe with just 13% forest cover, which pales in comparison to the European average of 37%1.
It’s often said that one should ‘get your house in order before criticising others’. It’s therefore quite an interesting conundrum that we UK conservationists conduct research all over the world, yet our own house is far from being in order – in fact it collapsed long ago.
As a result, aided by reading titles such as ‘Wilding’, ‘Rebirding’, and ‘Feral’ in the first months of lockdown, I became thoroughly invested in the concept of ‘rewilding’ and the notion that we shouldn’t just accept our current shameful levels of native biodiversity. Nor should we limit ourselves to only trying our best to conserve the remaining small pockets of wildlife-friendly land in a ‘business as usual’ fashion. Instead, we need more than conservation - we need restoration. So, when I heard about Cabilla Cornwall, an upland hill farm on Bodmin Moor with ambitious rewilding plans, that had just recently reintroduced beavers, and was actively looking for volunteers to help - I jumped at the chance to get involved.
Cabilla is owned by Merlin and Lizzie Hanbury-Tenison, a couple with an extraordinarily positive and progressive view for the future of their land. Upon my first visit, I discovered Cabilla’s 100 acres of ancient oak woodland for the first time. It felt like I had almost stepped back in Borneo. The forest was unlike any that I had ever visited in the UK before. I had heard of ‘temperate rainforest’ before and on this first encounter, I completely understood why this term was so apt. This was undeniably, a rainforest. Yes, you read that right. A rainforest. In Cornwall. Sure, the tree species were no different to those that you would perhaps find in a more typical UK woodland, but that is really where the similarities start to end. The oaks were shorter, and more gnarled, all donning bushy lichen beards and covered in lush green cloaks of epiphytic plants (simply put - plants that grow on the surfaces of other plants).
Swathes of polypody ferns fanned out in the canopy in all directions, and branches, encrusted with a technicolour array of different lichen species, littered the forest floor. Spongey bryophyte beds, inches thick, enveloped boulders - whilst string of sausages lichens, literally metres long, hung off trees like giant broken cobwebs. It was a remarkably quiet place, and yet so alive.
The edge of the 100 acres of temperate rainforest at Cabilla Cornwall.
Photo by Cameron Goodhead
This temperate rainforest habitat is a rarity and is surprisingly much less common than tropical rainforest - and yet often substantially more overlooked. It only occurs in temperate regions with oceanic climates causing high local rainfall and humidity. In the UK, this means it is predominately found up the Atlantic coastline. Here, they facilitate and are characterised
by the growth of epiphytes and key indicator species, such as the lichens Lobaria Pulmonata, Usnia articulata, and Usnia florida. As you can see in the map below, temperate rainforest should cover around 20% of the UK, but sadly this is not the case with the vast majority of it deforested centuries ago to make way for agricultural land and commercial forestry. As a result, in England, only select few pockets like Cabilla remain. Subsequent overgrazing, largely by sheep, has since stifled its return. The continued persistence of these walking woolly lawnmowers, savagely stripping saplings and grazing the landscape down to the bone prevents any of the necessary natural regeneration from occurring. And yet all it may take to change this is for these areas to have grazing levels reduced by removing the sheep and instead be farmed in a more regenerative manner or left to grow as a wilderness reserve.
There will be some who will argue that this way of intensively farming our uplands is necessary in order to keep Britain fed. But with lamb only making up a very small percentage of the nation’s diet, and meat consumption continuously reducing each year, this idea seems flawed. By making small changes to the management of our uplands and paying farmers to use the landscape in more sustainable ways, we could have minimal impact to food security whilst opening up huge landscapes for nature. Otherwise, it will simply continue as it is, beautiful and striking to some - but also desolate, with large areas amounting to little more than an ecological desert, devoid of life.
In the UK, it is interesting that there is often mass outcry over the deforestation of tropical rainforests occurring in other countries, and yet many don’t even realise - let alone become angered by - the fact that we had, and have lost, large areas of our own rainforests in the UK, and that they could be returned in time relatively easily if allowed. All we require is the willpower to do it.
A tree covered in string of sausages lichen (Usnia articulata) on the outskirts of the farm. Photo by Cameron Goodhead.
At Cabilla, we are working hard on restoring this bleak landscape and are attempting to kickstart the expansion of temperate rainforest habitat. On the site, there are over 200 acres that, up until the end of last year, were being used for intensive sheep and cattle grazing. These fields resembled much of the overgrazed open fields of Bodmin Moor, with little growing except the odd nettle and creeping thistle. Now, all the livestock are subsequently being removed from the land, save for a very small herd of belted Galloway cattle to mimic natural grazing intensities and patterns, and a beautiful black pig called Gloria to turn over soil and manage bracken growth. These old livestock fields are instead forming part of our forest regeneration scheme, with plans for the farm to generate income through ecotourism instead. The overall aim of the restoration project at the site is to turn the current 100 acres of temperate rainforest at Cabilla into a grand total of 300 acres, through natural regeneration and a targeted tree planting scheme, consisting of planting a mix of oak, hazel, hawthorn, willow, rowan and silver birch, a mix that resembles the tree species distribution currently found in the forest. Given time, these fields will eventually become rainforest again. We are also actively working on reintroductions of ‘lost’ species, like our beavers, who successfully bred last year, producing the first beaver kits to be born on Bodmin Moor in hundreds of years. These beavers are now actively contributing to changing the landscape for the better and creating more spaces for wildlife.
One of the beaver kits with its parent at Cabilla Cornwall. Photo by Cameron Goodhead.
The best thing is that it doesn’t take long for wildlife to bounce back. In just one singular field that has been left to grow out for only a year, I have seen flocks of goldfinches hundreds-strong feeding on heads of thistles that would ordinarily be removed from more ‘tidy’ farms. We have had massive booms in butterfly numbers, such as red admiral and small tortoiseshell, with their caterpillars feeding on the hordes of nettles in the landscape that have been left alone. Buzzards are regularly seen soaring overhead, hunting prey in the long grass. I have even witnessed stoats racing around near the tent pitch where I camped whilst working at the site. This is just the start. In time, we hope to have a biodiversity boom, with owls quartering the grassy fields and nesting on site, encouraged by the increasing small mammal population in the longer grass. Farmland birds will keep increasing in numbers, bolstered by the growth of intermediate scrub.
Someday we may even have enough interconnected forest that we will have pine martens and wildcats masterfully hunting amongst the trees. Reaching this point will take time. Many decades even. But that makes starting as soon as possible even more important.
Whilst this is an incredibly inspiring venture, at only 300 acres, Cabilla will not put a dent in bringing back the biodiversity of the UK on its own. It is therefore vital that there is nationwide focus on the reforestation of the UK - with added emphasis on the restoration of temperate rainforest. Fortunately, Cabilla is not alone in this venture. Restoring the UK’s rainforest has recently started receiving significant media attention in the past few years thanks to the dedicated outreach work by organisations like Plantlife, and the work of activists, such as Guy Shrubsole, who has been mapping current pockets of temperate rainforest across the UK and pushing for legislation that commits the UK to protecting and restoring these vital habitats. With this new awareness of UK rainforest and the arrival of the government’s new landscape recovery scheme, alongside changes to the farm payments schemes to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, this could be the perfect pivotal moment for conservationists to work alongside farmers and politicians to turn Bodmin Moor, and other areas of our uplands, into beautiful heterogeneous landscapes. A landscape of a diverse mix of moorland, bogs, mires, heathland, and yes, lots of temperate rainforest woodland, all alive with wildlife once more.
Cabilla Cornwall now relies on ecotourism to generate income, allowing people to stay at and explore the site. Photo by Cameron Goodhead.
If you want to help us restore this vital habitat, follow the link below to add your name to a recent petition set up by Guy Shrubsole to encourage the UK government to set up a ‘Great British Rainforest Strategy’. Alternatively, we welcome any volunteers at Cabilla to assist with our tree planting programme. Get in contact with me through my email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 – Forestry Statistics 2021 Report, Forest Research, Forestry Commission
2 - Ellis, Christopher J. "Oceanic and temperate rainforest climates and their epiphyte indicators in Britain." Ecological Indicators 70 (2016): 125-133.