A Liking for Lichen… Assynt Field Club go searching

February 14th 2019

I was one of the eight folk from Assynt Field Club who, during October 2018, chose to attend some or all of the “Lichens of the Atlantic Woodlands” Workshop. This was generously funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Natural Heritage through CALLP’s small grant scheme. We were very lucky to have as our tutor the tireless and delightful Andy Acton, who is a leading younger lichenologist in Scotland.  Have you ever heard of an apprentice lichenologist?  Well, Andy Acton was one.  Indeed, he and his partner Anna Griffith wrote the two brilliant Plantlife Leaflets on Lichens of Atlantic Woodlands (2008) essential bedtime reading! With lots of pictures. 

I have been studying the hazel trees in the Atlantic woods in Assynt, it is time to learn more about lichen.  A daunting task, but exciting.

As a child I was fascinated by wildlife, indeed had a collection of pet snails in a salad cream jar at the age of 4 while living in a houseboat in Chiswick.  Tidal life didn’t suit me well as I wanted to spend all my time looking for beasties and playing head-hunters in the wee wood nearby with my wee pal.  Occasionally a frog would appear on the gangplank, though, while all at sea. That only seems odd just now writing this!  BTW I promise I didn’t bring the snails to Clachtoll! (groan) but I have a fondness for them which makes it impossible for me to kill, eat or farm them (shame). 

I moved on to mammals and later birds: I really only got interested in less-moving wildlife (flowering plants and fungi) in my early twenties.  I have seen it, many times, how a sort of addiction for things wild can strike folk at any time in their lives.  One of my heroes is Barbara, from Livingston, a dinner lady who suddenly became interested in birds in her fifties. Barbara ended up doing a huge amount of surveys for her local nature reserve and then spent all her holidays watching wildlife, including here.  She is very sadly missed.

Back to lichen – a lichen is actually a fungus providing the home to a partner who makes all the food (sound familiar?):  in this case a photosynthesising green alga or a cyanobacterium (both microscopic). Recently it has been discovered that many lichens also contain yeasts living happily and complicatedly. Wow.  

The thread running through all this babbling about wildlife is identification.  Recognising what something is means I can see more things.  A woodland used to be a green blur – now I can see the different tree species and tell wood sorrel, wood anemone and wood sage apart.  A flower meadow became so much more interesting once I could tell ladies bedstraw from my lady’s mantle, or yellow rattle from common vetch.  Don’t mention the delights of bog mosses.

Lichens are altogether more complicated.  You need a strong hand lens ideally incorporating a light and the most magnifying pair of glasses you can get from an economy shop.  Or I do.  And you need a really great memory for words like isidia, soredia, rhizines and hypothallus. And don’t bother translating the latin to English names because the latin tells you something about relationships. Except for Desperate Dan, Crottle and Frilly lettuce of course, who could forget those!  And you need to practice, practice, practice.  Oops.

Needless to say, we had a brilliant time and hope Andy Acton and his family will come back and visit and do some more surveys.  We will try to get lots of practice and record lots of local lichen from our Atlantic Woodlands, and many other habitats.

Roz Summers

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