Forgotten Rainforests of Ullswater

by April Windle

Banner Image © April Windle

“The Ullswater Valley is without a doubt one of my favourite places in the Lake District. From the shores of Ullswater Lake, to the summit of Helvellyn – this landscape has such a rich variety of habitats on offer”.

Lakeland is renowned for its breathtaking scenery, with millions of people traveling every year to have their hearts stolen by the high mountains, rolling fells and tranquillity of the lakes. However, there is a very important habitat stitched across the landscape, which is often forgotten and left unnoticed amidst the dramatic surroundings … these are Cumbria’s rainforests.

When you say the word “rainforest” - people are often transported thousands of miles away to places like the Amazon or Borneo, but unbeknown to most, we have our very own rainforests right here in Britain. These woodlands, or Atlantic woodlands, are a habitat of huge conservation importance and are confined to the western seaboard of the British Isles, where they are influenced by the wet-mild climate from across the Atlantic. Some of these woods are remnants of the ancient wildwood, which are those that started appearing across Britain after the last ice-age. Therefore, these woodlands are some of the oldest, living ecosystems that we have in Britain, where this long continuity and high rainfall results in spectacular habitats which are teaming with wildlife.

Atlantic woodlands are a world unto themselves, and have such a mystical and enchanted feel to them. These woods are so dramatic and wild, with their craggy terrain and rivers that cut through the ancient tree-scapes, where the broadleaf canopy locks in humidity from the high rainfall. The National Trust’s Aira Force is a classic example of this, most renowned for its impressive 60ft waterfall, where the water cascades its way along the beck and into Ullswater Lake.

Aira Force © April Windle

What truly defines these rainforests (alongside the rain of course), are the lichens, mosses and liverworts that make these woodlands so remarkably special. When you walk into these woods, the first thing that you notice is every available surface is covered in life. The rocks are carpeted in mosses and the trees cloaked in lichens, where the species found here are as rare, if not rarer than the habitat in which they are found.

As you move across the landscape, these woodlands change in character, to more open Atlantic wood pasture and parkland habitats, seen at sites such as Glencoyne and Gowbarrow Park. These fells have been subject to a long history of grazing, across generations of farmers - where this management has been fundamental in retaining space for the trees to grow and veteranize.

“Two of the most exceptional trees I have encountered in the UK, are located here, along the northern shores of Ullswater. The Gowbarrow Wych Elm, and the Yew Crag Ash are two ancient trees that stand proud in the landscape, each so individual with their own personalities – which I have been lucky enough to get to know over the years.

It isn’t just the antiquity of these trees that are so impressive, with their craggy bark and twisted trunks, but it’s the diversity of life that these tree support that makes them so remarkable. These veterans must be 300-400 years old (if not older) and it’s this long continuity that has allowed the colonisation and growth of a suite of important lichen species”.

Gowbarrow Elm © April Windle
Yew Crag Ash © Caz Walker

These rainforests are an extraordinary aspect of our Cumbrian countryside, and they are right here on our doorstep waiting to be explored. There are no words to explain how these woodlands make you feel, so when you book your next adventure to Ullswater – pay them a visit and go experience one of Britain’s finest habitats for yourself.

by April Windle (Twitter @aprilwindle)

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