From restoring Britain’s lost rainforests to expanding our Right to Roam, Guy Shrubsole’s environmental activism pulls back the curtain on the myth that Britain’s countryside is wonderfully abundant, at least in its current state. He’s also full of ideas for how to change that.
Historically speaking, and still for many people, the British countryside is a pillar of the British national identity. Quaint, green, bucolic - it is seen as abundant in its own charming way. But it is also mythical. In reality, the British countryside is characterised as much by human devastation as natural abundance - something environmental campaigner Guy Shrubsole spends lots of energy trying to rectify.
Shrubsole’s latest campaign, Lost Rainforests of Britain (with the accompanying book now available for pre-order) is calling on the Government to implement a ‘Great British Rainforests Strategy’ to restore and protect the temperate rainforest that once blanketed much of the British Isles, but now only survives in isolated pockets.
Beyond a vague, romantic awareness of mossy Atlantic oakwoods, most of us probably don’t think of Britain as a country of rainforest - a typically tropical term. Shrubsole sometimes encounters a certain “British exceptionalism” that views the British countryside as something unique - a biome unto itself. “I met an MP the other day who flat out denied for ten minutes that we have rainforests in this country, which I found quite amusing,” he recalls.
'I met an MP the other day who flat out denied for ten minutes that we have rainforests in this country, which I found quite amusing.'
But anybody who walks through Britain’s rainforest would be in little doubt, Shrubsole says. With its “sheer abundance of mosses and glowing green epiphytes festooning the branches of these trees,” they “would think they were in a tropical rainforest.” And although not quite as biodiverse as tropical rainforests, temperate rainforests are considerably rarer.
Increasingly rare, in fact. Temperate rainforest now covers less than 1% of Britain, despite the potential to cover 20%. Only around 46,624 acres survive in England. In the Bronze Age we began decimating them - a decimation that continued well into the forestry policies of the 20th century. This is the main reason for our obliviousness.
As it stands, a combination of wild and livestock grazing, invasive species and pollution means the surviving fragments stand little chance of regeneration. Despite being incredibly carbon-rich ecosystems that nurture many rare lichens, mosses, fungi, birds, insects and mammals, only 27% are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and Shrubsole has seen one study (p. 251) that suggests no British rainforest is meaningfully protected.
It doesn’t need to be like this. Allusions to rainforest run through British cultural history. Celtic druids were known to have worshipped the oaks of western Briain, Shrubsole informs me (druid probably translates as ‘oak-knower’ or ‘oak-seer’). The brooding forests in the fiction of J.R. R. Tolkein and Arthur Conan Doyle are rooted in Britain’s temperate rainforest. And even today, remnants like Dartmoor’s otherworldly Wistman’s Wood and Scotland’s Ariundle Oakwood remain “honeypot” visitor sites. But can we muster the collective re-enchantment, and the tangible policy, required to regenerate our rainforest and rekindle our relationship with it?
A number of politicians have made supportive sounds, Shrubsole says, but turning this from rhetoric into concrete policy or funding is an ongoing challenge. The campaign petition is almost at the 10,000 signatures required to guarantee a Government response.
Beyond signing the petition, sharing the campaign on social media and asking MPs to support it, Shrubsole is calling on adventurous members of the public to actually help map Britain’s temperate rainforest. Having wandered through, happened upon and recorded many pockets himself, he’s currently turning hundreds of photographic submissions, as well as input from ecologists and botanists, into a fuller map. The “resurgence of interest in nature on your doorstep” during lockdown has likely helped this mapping process, he says.
Shrubsole will then use the map as a basis for conversations with landowners about restoring rainforest on their land, ideally supported by Government funding. Until then, some enterprising farmers are already demonstrating the ecotourism potential of temperate rainforest. Farmer Merlin Hanbury-Tenison, for example, has embarked upon a thousand-year project to restore the Cabilla valley from an upland farm into a resilient temperate rainforest, supported by revenue from retreats, walking, forest bathing, birdwatching and other forest activities. Amidst considerable uncertainty about what will replace (or not) the EU farming subsidies now being phased out, similar models could become more prevalent.
Lost Rainforests of Britain tells a story of potential abundance, if only we change how we relate to the landscape. And the same is true of Shrubsole’s other major campaign of recent months: Right to Roam.
Started with his friend, the author-illustrator Nick Hayes, Right to Roam is campaigning for an extension of the Countryside & Rights of Way (CRoW) Act in England and Wales. 92% of land in England remains inaccessible to the public - a gross inequality in any circumstance, but especially as the wide-ranging benefits of time outdoors are better understood. “It’s absolutely crazy that we have no right of access to 97% of the rivers in England and Wales,” Shrubsole says. “Absolutely bonkers.”
'It’s absolutely crazy that we have no right of access to 97% of the rivers in England and Wales,” Shrubsole says. “Absolutely bonkers.'
These stats look even starker in light of the argument, often spouted in immigration debates, that the country is full. “This was most notoriously said recently by Richard Drax MP, who owns a 7000-acre estate in Dorset, around which is one of the largest walls in Western Europe,” says Shrubsole. “His estate is not full. If only he shared it with a few more members of the British public.”
Shrubsole and Hayes have both published fascinating books that bolster the campaign. If Shrubsole’s Who Owns England maps out the arcane system of land ownership underpinning the issue, Hayes’ The Book of Trespass and The Trespassers Companion map the direct-action response.
But Right to Roam isn’t just calling for more outdoor access. It’s calling, Shrubsole says, for a “different relationship between people and nature - a reconnection.” The less we can access nature - the more we are confined to cities and scuppered by fences and barbed wire - the less we care and know about that land. “Is it really any wonder that we don't really fully appreciate the fact that we've lost half of our farmland birds in the last 50 years?” Shrubsole asks. “How many of us hear the dawn chorus anymore?”
This isn’t about returning to an agrarian society, he says, but putting in place a “new social contract” between landowners, farmers and the public that gives the public more oversight of and input into countryside management. Increasing accountability is as important as increasing knowledge of and care for nature.
There is a deep-rooted sense, Shrubsole says, that threats to the countryside come from urban areas. The Green Belt has become a symbolic dividing line here, and rhetoric about new communities coming into the outdoors - the Lulworth Estate, which owns Durdle Door, recently blamed “diverse crowds” for litter - reinforces this idea.
On the other hand, Shrubsole says, “we're still left with … this idea of a slight sense of cultural deference towards landowners and farmers as being the rightful custodians of the land,” despite the devastation industrialised farming has imposed on these landscapes - something campaigners like Shrubsole and George Monbiot have been working to highlight.
Only recently, Shrubsole recalls that, during a mass trespass in Devon, “we found not just a giant pheasant shoot,” but “the discarded corpses of pheasants dumped in a giant landfill site.” This is, remarkably, a routine feature of the sport of pheasant shooting - a sport backed by a twisted legal logic. “I think, actually, we should be giving the lie to those myths that Britain is full and the English countryside is all beautiful and wonderful and bucolic and managed well by the people who own it, and drawing back that curtain and allowing people into it,” Shrubsole says.
'I think, actually, we should be giving the lie to those myths that Britain is full and the English countryside is all beautiful and wonderful and bucolic and managed well by the people who own it, and drawing back that curtain and allowing people into it.'
On the face of it, things aren’t looking good. On 28th June, Shrubsole’s birthday, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act came into effect. Among other creepingly authoritarian measures, it makes trespass with intent to reside a criminal offence. Most perniciously, Shrubsole says, “this essentially criminalises the way of life of Gypsies, Roma and travellers.” And “what we don't know yet is whether it completely criminalises wild camping. There may be test cases on that later in the year.”
In some ways then we’re going backwards. But Shrubsole also sees hope. There is growing awareness of and prominence given to environmental issues, especially in the wake of COP 26. Stories like the fact that water companies are dumping human sewage into UK rivers almost half a million times per year seem to be landing with increasing force and inspiring more grassroots action (Shrubsole sees river health one of the next major frontiers in environmental action).
The question is, will this groundswell translate into a new social contract around the environment? We must hope so. And beyond hoping, let’s follow campaigners like Shrubsole. Let’s learn, petition, trespass, message MPs and otherwise support greater access to and input into the outdoors. Only then might the British landscape once again resemble a place of genuine abundance.