Saving the Celtic Rainforest

by frankbeswick

The Celtic Rain Forest is a temperate woodland now restricted to the Western regions of the British Isles.

When we think of the rain forest our minds roam to exotic jungles in the tropics, but tropical rain forest is only one sort of forest, for there was a temperate, Atlantic type of rain forest that cloaked the rainy parts of The British Isles and spread as far south as Portugal. Human activity has restricted it to a small number of regions, all remote,in the traditional Celtic countries of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Often these areas are very difficult of access. which is why the forest has survived. There are projects committed to preserving it.

Image:creative commons

The Merionnydd Oakwoods

The Afon Prysor was born when the melting ice liberated water to spring afresh through the ice-sculpted landscape, and the exuberant juvenile waters scoured their path to the ocean via a gorge that they carved on their course. Thus was Ceunant Llenyrch [Llenyrch Gorge] created.  That was ten thousand years ago, as the Ice Age was concluding.  The abounding rains that swept in from the Atlantic and the spray from the Rhaeadr  Dhu [Black waterfall] Prysor's cascade,  created an environment lush for ferns, which have thrived ever since among the trees of the narrow gorge, which at one place is a mere thirty three feet across. Its precipitous sides are not friendly to humans, and so as the rain forest dwindled in extent due to man's exactions Coed Llenyrch [Llenyrch Wood] remained unsullied.Experts suspect that there are places in Ceunant's narrow defile that have never known the footfall of humans. But who is to know?

Ceunant Llenyrch is one out of eight reserves of  ancient Celtic rain forest that form the oak woods of the ancient county of Merionydd [pronounced Merionyth.] Only three are available for access to visitors, as the narrow gorges of the other five are too dangerous for tourists to tread. But Llenyrch has been joined to Coed Felinrhyd, a large woodland owned by the National Trust to create a single site that unites Celtic forests into a larger unity. The result is a 755 acre forest in the south of the Snowdonia National Park. Coed [wood] Felinrhyd is accessible to walkers and is very popular.  

The uniqueness of the Celtic rainforest habitat lies not in its wildflowers, which are not abundant, but in its ferns, mosses, lichens and liverworts. The shady and wet environment is a dream for ferns, and over two hundred species of lichens,  and about the same number of mosses. Some are rare, and recently one thought to have been extinct in Britain since the 1800s was rediscovered clinging to safety in Coed Llynyrch. The wood is also rich in epiphytes, plants that cling to trees and derive their nutrients from the air, rain, dust and plant debris. 

Tree species are not unique, but there are some rare ones, such as the sessile oak. This, unlike the peduncular varieties of oak, has acorns with no stem that grow directly from the branches. Felled to near extinction to provide wood for industry and England's war fleets, it survives in isolated, inaccessible spots. There is the downy birch, not a common species.We find hazel and the ever-present rowan.

The woods, with all  their mosses and epiphytes, have a Tolkien-like feel to them, and indeed, the great master of fantasy was deeply inspired by the Welsh myths of the Mabinogion, some of which were set in these ancient woodlands. The grave of the mythical king, Pryderi, slain in battle with the trickster god, Gwydion, a Celtic version of the Saxon Woden, was said to have been located in these forests, though no site has ever been identified as its whereabouts. 

Saving the Forest

Firstly, getting groups together was the priority. The National and Woodland Trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and various others, including private landowners , joined forces with the British and Welsh governments,the National Park authorities and the European Union to establish the project. A grant of nearly nine million pounds came from the European Union along with a promise from the British government that it would be underwritten by them if our [suicidal, my words not theirs] decision to leave the EU is ever implemented. A private donor who wants to remain anonymous provided the million pounds to purchase Ceunant Llenyrch. 

The strategy was to progress gradually, by slowly felling intrusive conifer. Conifer had for some years replaced native hardwoods as it is more suitable for forestry than they are, and in a century when there were two world wars there was an urgent need for wood. But times have changed and the need for native woodlands has been recognised and so there has been a move away from conifer in favour of native arboreal flora. But the process had  to be slow, for the project scientists cautioned against making sudden changes to the forest floor, as they realised that a shock to the woodland system might be detrimental to its well being. So single trees were felled and their removal sensitively managed. The technique was to avoid heavy vehicles, so horse-logging was used. This  strategy avoids the ground damage caused by heavy vehicles and in steep places is far safer than tractor usage, for tractors can topple on steep ground. 

The scientists had other reasons not to disturb the wood. Lichens thrive when undisturbed, so this was yet another reason for minimum disturbance to the woodland. There was also the need to protect the habitats of the creatures for whom the woods were a refuge, the bats, birds and voles,all of whom rely on these forests for their home. 

Recognition that woods in the modern age need management meant that grazing animals had to be re-introduced to the wood. Yet it had to be animals that were suited to rugged woodland terrain. What better than a herd of highland cattle? These cattle are not left to wander uncontrolled, but their presence in the wood is managed so that they are moved to different areas. This means that the surface vegetation is kept down. The presence of cattle is perfectly natural for a wood, as British  woodlands were once the home of wild cattle. 

As global warming menaces us water management in Britain becomes urgent, and it is becoming increasingly clear that traditional hydrological solutions are failing. So there has been a rethinking of the role of beavers in the landscape. Beavers are native to Britain, but were hunted to extinction by the sixteenth century. The return of beaver colonies has been mooted and there are plans to restore then to Coed Felinrhyd.[Coed is pronounced coord.] It is hoped that the beavers' soft solutions to flooding which allow for slow movement of water will be preferable to the modern concrete barriers which fail so much. 

Highland Cattle

Highland Cattle
Highland Cattle

A Woodland Walk.

Let us wander together through Coed Felinrhyd. It is late afternoon in early Fall[Autumn], and the leaves have just begun to brown. We walk along a well-made stone  path. Birds that have made their homes in this woodland flit and chitter. A rarely seen nuthatch runs down a tree. It is the only bird capable of this method of movement. A fieldfare flashes past and you delight in its fleeting visitation. A damp breeze from the Irish Sea rustles the leaves and there is a gentle soughing of wind in the trees.

We bathe in the forest as we stroll, moving without hurry and walking sensitively, alert to the slight zephyrs of the wind and the sounds of birds. There is a skittering and a brief commotion as birds flock skywards at the presence of a buzzard,a reminder that while nature is beautiful she is also cruel. We drink in the sounds of the streams as we walk, sensitive to the individuality of each tiny cascade. Otters have left their footprints by the stream banks, and we catch a glimpse  of one of them at play in the river. There are glimpses of the highland cattle among the trees, but they are indifferent to us and are not pets, so they seek not our company. 

The evening is falling and it is time that we return. The first bats are out. We know that the wood is a refuge for two kinds of horseshoe bats, and that there are also natterer's bat,the ever-present pipistrelles and the rarer whiskered bat. We enjoy their flittings, but we cannot tell which is which. The short dry clicks of the whiskered bat, though, tell us that it is within half an hour of sunset and that we should return to the car. But as we do we bathe in the faint sounds of the early evening forest, the creaking and whispering that gives the darkening wood a mysterious character.  

We  have drunk of the sacredness of the ancient forest, revelled in its natural harmonies, the music of wind and water, bird and beast. But the moon is beginning to rise and we must leave the wood to its own life. 

Updated: 10/25/2018, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/09/2019

Celtic refers to the cultural/broad ethnic group inhabiting the west of the British Isles. Scholars used to class the Scots, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Manx and Bretons as Celts.As this forest is in Wales it is named the Celtic Rain Forest. Nowadays Celtic is a broad term to denote a cultural and linguistic rather than an ethic group. A colleague at work once told me that I looked Celtic, almost certainly because I have Irish features.

WriterArtist on 02/09/2019

I am really happy that these areas of forest reserves are inaccessible. Only due to the difficult terrains have these rainforests survived. Many of India's jungles and world's rainforests have fallen prey to illegal poachers and thieves who steal timbre. Amazon's rainforests are threatened and chopping has not stopped. Many of human's actions are irreversible, temperature changes and eco-systems being threatened, there is a really long list of abuse to the living planet. I wonder why the forests are called celtic rainforest.

frankbeswick on 10/30/2018

The five reserves are not impossible of access, but it has been decided that safety concerns mean that only forest staff and scientists,properly equipped can enter them. There may be electronic surveillance present in the form of cameras, in fact there often is, but I don't know the details.

Beavers have been introduced from North America.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/29/2018

frankbeswick, Thank you for the tour of a temperate rainforest and some of its life forms. There are temperate rainforests in North America from Alaska through California and in Appalachia: I love their humidity, moisture, sights, smells, sounds and wildlife.
Is there some kind of a human and technological surveillance system in effect for the five reserves that cannot be accessed by visitors? Researchers must be able to access them, correct?
Where would the beaver be introduced from?

frankbeswick on 10/26/2018

These cattle are bred to suit their environment, which can be cold and wet. They would be unsuitable for the warmer parts of the state's.

katiem2 on 10/26/2018

Such groups are vital to our global health and while not everyone understands the importance of such collaborations I do and many others as well, the positive actions hopefully out weigh the negative.

I have always thought cows were adorable but highland cattle are gorgeous, it is amazing the difference in highland cattle as compared to cattle in the states.

frankbeswick on 10/26/2018

There are temperate rain forests in South Chile, though the flora of these Valdivian forests differs from the flora of the Celtic ones.

frankbeswick on 10/26/2018

The climatics of the Celtic rain .forest differ from those of the tropical rain forests. The latter rely on convectional rainfall in many places, though the forests on the Eastern Andes get much rain from the Pacific ocean. The Celtic forest relies on westward-moving Atlantic weather systems; and Western Britain and Ireland in particular benefit from the warming effects of the North Atlantic Drift.

blackspanielgallery on 10/25/2018

Interesting of a rain forest so far north.

blackspanielgallery on 10/25/2018

Interesting of a rain forest so far north.

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