'Hidden gems': Rainforests still exist in the UK - here's where you can find them

Skin-coloured stubby protuberances are bursting out of the branch beside me. The growth looks like coral fused with baby's fingers.

Hazel gloves fungus offers a taste of the mysterious delights lurking in our rainforests.

Yes, "our" rainforests. They do exist in the UK, once covering about one fifth of the country but are now reduced to a fragmented necklace of green jewels along our western edge.

These are temperate rainforests, dependent on at least one metre of rainfall every year and also found along the Pacific Ocean coasts of Japan, New Zealand, Chile and in North Western America.

Over thousands of years, our rainforests fell victim to our appetite for timber, charcoal and grazing land so they are now reduced to covering just 1% of Britain, largely confined to steep valleys and sheltered islands isolated from livestock.

My guide to these hidden gems is Guy Shrubsole, author of a new book, The Lost Rainforests Of Britain.

We set off across Dartmoor toward Longash Wood in very relevant weather: the rain is sheeting across the roads and making the rivers rage.

But the landscape appears unpromising at first: open, blasted moorland broken by the occasional tor and stone walls.

Yet, as we descend into a valley, the heath gives way to scrub and the woodland grows by stealth around us. Until we're in the midst of it.

Mr Shrubsole loves it: "I feel hugely alive. I'm just incredibly inspired by all of this life that surrounds us. We've got mosses, ferns, bilberry bushes and it feels soaked in myths and magic."

It's hard to overstate the delightful strangeness of the place. It feels like we've stepped into the realm of Celtic folklore crossed with familiar Hollywood visions: Jurassic Park, Lord Of The Rings or Harry Potter.

We're here in mid-winter but the forest is so lush. Moss cloaks every boulder, lichens feather most branches and fungi ooze through the leaf litter.

It may lack the raucous monkeys or alarming creepy-crawlies of its tropical cousins but it mirrors their intensity of flora and fauna.

Mr Shrubsole gives me an expert guide to what's here.

"You've got maybe 500 species of lichens that thrive in these kind of places and 160 types of mosses and liverworts.

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"Here are polypody ferns that grow on trees also known as epiphytes, plants that grow on other plants and this is what characterises Britain's rainforest - it's wet enough for plants to grow on the trunks of others."

As we meander through, the bewitching green shapes and "string of sausage" lichens draw the eye away from the more immediate task of avoiding the deepest, squelching puddles. The trees here are mainly gnarly Atlantic oaks, hazel and blackthorn which play home to so much else.

"This is peltigera or dog lichen. It gets its name because on the underside they've got what looks like little sharp teeth. But a bit further down we've got some of those sticta lichens that, if you rub them, smell of fish," Mr Shrubsole added.

Throughout the year, these habitats can be home to migrant birds like pied flycatcher, wood warbler, redstart and the rare chequered skipper butterfly.

Mr Shrubsole would like to see them expand by incentivising farmers to create a "no grazing" 100-metre margin around existing temperate rainforests.

Shrinking farmland, even on marginal ground, is always controversial and allowing the trees to regenerate naturally also requires excluding deer with fences or guns.

"If we did that, we could double their area within a generation - taking those small fragments and allowing them to spread. That's something we need the government to be aiming to do."

Who knew we have rainforests you can see, smell and really feel without having to go all the way to the Amazon?

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