Associate Feature: How to Restore Scotland’s Rainforest
On Scotland’s Atlantic seaboard, among more isolated peninsulas, hillsides and glens, are the remnants of one of the rarest and most beautiful ecosystems anywhere on earth – the temperate rainforest.
These are the largest remaining rainforest strongholds in Europe. Like its tropical counterpart, this ancient forest harbours a unique, complex, inter-dependent community of species – including lichens, mosses and liverworts in staggering diversity and globally significant populations.
But Scotland’s rainforest today is vastly reduced in extent, fragmented into small patches, and is being damaged right now by intense environmental pressures. The principal drivers of rainforest losses are, first, the invasive non-native plant Rhododendron ponticum, spreading rapidly, choking-out these woodlands and their ecological communities. Second, grazing pressure from unnaturally high densities of deer and other herbivores is preventing the rainforest from regenerating itself, with young trees being consumed faster than they can grow.
When ancient woodlands become fragmented, specialised species cannot find new habitat patches and become vulnerable to local extinction - accelerated and exacerbated by extreme weather events, disease, or the arrival of new pressures. Restoring our remaining patches of rainforest requires reversing the pressures driving declines and reinstating natural processes and regeneration. It needs concerted, co-ordinated effort.
The Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest partners have a pipeline of inspiring rainforest projects underway and in development that will help, contributing to a better future for key rainforest sites, bringing long-term, simultaneous benefits for communities and nature. Together with other initiatives around the rainforest zone, these are important opportunities.
In post-Brexit, pandemic-impacted times, however, larger scale and long-term ecosystem restoration struggles to find the right level of support to become reality. Smaller projects working within current funding constraints, whilst of huge value locally, are too small and short-term to secure the lasting social and ecological legacies essential to restore rainforest at scale. Effective restoration at whole-ecosystem level needs cross-sectoral policy support, strategic action, and significant additional resources sustained across multiple years.
A new approach is needed: one that deploys and supports a strategic, coordinated series of landscape-scale initiatives, harnessing innovative, locally tailored, community-centred projects across the entire rainforest zone.
This is a lot of money. Building and delivering world-leading ecosystem restoration of our rainforest, making a better-functioning and more resilient system, requires investment. But this would be a ground-breaking nature-based solution to critical environmental crises, offering both long-term carbon storage and wider ecosystem services. Rainforest restoration could bring consolidated economic and social benefits to communities across the west highlands, supporting green recovery and just transition to a carbon neutral, nature-positive future. The widely admired Peatland Action Fund, at comparable cost, demonstrates that Scotland can, and is, tackling ecosystem restoration at scale. Lessons are being learned that could be applied widely: government funding is significant but has also become a lever for additional income from other sources.
Restoring Scotland’s rainforest is not a pipe dream. The 2021-22 Programme for Government explicitly includes a progressive commitment to support rainforest restoration. We could see this ecosystem, and communities alongside, thriving once again, in our lifetime. But this will need deep, long-term ambition and commitment across sectors, and the right level of resourcing, if it is to become reality.
This article was sponsored by RSPB Scotland, Woodland Trust Scotland and Plantlife Scotland.