Hidden away along the western coasts of the United Kingdom lie rare ecosystems: temperate rainforests. These woodlands are characterised by wet, moderate, and humid conditions. They are home to unique plants and animals. It is also a sanctuary for lichen species found nowhere else on the planet.

The sanctuary is under threat due to a combination of causes: deforestation, climate change, air pollution, and the ash dieback disease.

Lichens are a distinctive group of organisms that inhabit temperate rainforests, composed of fungi in symbiotic association with other organisms like algae. In Britain and Ireland, there are over 2,000 lichen species, with many of them specifically located in these unique rainforests.

Temperate rainforests in the UK are scattered in small pockets across regions like the western parts of Scotland and North Wales, the Lake District, and southwestern England. Over time, these ancient woodlands have diminished due to deforestation and excessive grazing.

One such woodland is Lydford Gorge in Devon, which is home to numerous rare species, some of which have only been discovered in recent years. Among them, the horsehair lichen Bryoria smithii is found only in two rainforest sites in Britain. Arthonia thoriana is believed to exist only in a single woodland in Somerset.

The ash dieback is a fungal disease originating from Asia and the changing climate. The disease has caused significant damage to European ash trees in recent decades, making it a critical issue in the preservation of these ecosystems.

Lichenologist April Windle points out that conservation often focuses on larger, more visually striking species. It is the smaller, less conspicuous organisms, such as lichens, that play an invaluable role within habitats like temperate rainforests.

In recent years, efforts were implemented to protect lichens growing on dying trees by relocating them to different areas within the forest and by planting new trees. These efforts are part of a broader conservation project in Devon, primarily dedicated to restoring existing woodlands and ensuring the protection of crucial plant and animal species.

The restoration efforts include clearing invasive plants to preserve the native ecosystem, planting new trees to replace old trees that succumbed to ash dieback, and transplanting lichens growing on dying trees to different areas within the forest. This multi-pronged approach aims to safeguard these unique species for generations to come.