By Richard Baynes

SCOTLAND’S rainforests may be less widespread than their tropical namesakes but are just as threatened due to foreign invaders.

Now environmental groups are demanding a £500 million commitment from the Scottish Government to make good its pledge to save the country’s unique rainforest.

Charities are ramping up the pressure on ministers to keep a COP26 pledge to save the temperate rainforest, ahead of a keynote speech on Thursday by Mairi McAllan, minister for environment, biodiversity and land reform.

At the COP26 climate talks, Ms McAllan pledged Scotland’s Atlantic rainforest would be saved, saying: “We want to protect and expand this precious environment and we have committed to do so in the life of this parliament.”

The green groups say ministers should put up at least £250m in taxpayers’ cash, which would enable the charities to work with officials to raise the rest and start to restore the rainforest in the next ten years.

Tim Hall, head of estates and programmes at the Woodland Trust Scotland, said: “We estimate the scale of investment to restore this precious habitat to be around £500m over at least 10 years. This is the kind of investment needed to secure ecosystem restoration and reverse the decline of Scotland’s rainforest.

“This money will pass through local communities supporting green jobs in economically fragile areas, so should be looked on as an investment in the future of people, nature and climate.

“Without funding of this order, Scotland’s rainforest will be lost, not expanded.”

Scotland’s rainforests are relics of once great swathes of forest strung out along the Atlantic coastline dating to the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago.

They are found where the moisture-laden Gulf Stream from the Atlantic Ocean comes into contact with the land and condenses into rain.

The forests have some of Europe’s best examples of epiphyte communities, which is the collective term for lichens, mosses and other plants which grow on trees to avoid competition for sunlight on the forest floor.

The woodlands are classed as cool-temperate rainforest, which is also found on the coasts of North America, Norway, Japan and New Zealand.

But the rainforests have become fragmented with around 50 per cent having been destroyed already and the habitats have become even more endangered than their more famous tropical counterparts. The woodlands are also invaluable for protecting against flooding as they act like sponges and soak up the heavy rain, but clear felling in the 18th and 19th centuries left them fragmented along the coast.

Many European temperate rainforests have already become degraded as a result of pollution or poor management but Scotland represents some of the best examples of the habitat anywhere in the world.

Lichens are vital to the ecology of Scotland as they are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen which very few other species can do.

They are also primary producers of biomass and play an important role in soil formation and also provide a habitat to a whole array of creatures.

Of the £500m price tag suggested, around half would be needed just to deal with invasive alien rhododendron ponticum in the western woodlands, which is overwhelming large areas.

They shut light out from the forest floor, stopping any other new growth, and eventually take over forests to become a monoculture of glossy green-leaved bushes.

Removing them is a labour-intensive business, as each stem has to be cut out and burned, and the stump injected with weedkiller.

The rest of the £500m estimate would be needed for deer management, conservation grazing, planting new trees and other hands-on conservation work, plus the administration, planning and other back-up to make the scheme work.

Forestry consultant and rhododendron clearance expert Gordon Gray Stephen made the cost estimates for the charities.

He said: “I’m an optimist. I believe there are compelling reasons for the Scottish Government to act on this, so I have a strong hope and believe they will come up with substantial sums. It should have been done sooner. The rhoddie problem grows exponentially and every delay makes matters worse.”