Montane Lichens on Quinag

November 29th 2023

Montane Lichens on Quinag

During a prolonged period of hot dry weather we visited Assynt once more, staying at Unapool for a week at the start of June 2023. The bogs crunched underfoot and there were fewer flowering plants to be found at this usually most abundant time of year. Luckily we were looking at lichens which generally are not seasonal nor affected by drought, though they are often brighter in colour when moist. Our aim was to get up as many big hills as we could manage – Glas Bheinn at the start of the week, Conival at the end, and Quinag in between. We last visited Quinag in 2021, finding some good upland lichens on Sail Ghorm, the north western ridge of the mountain.

What is a lichen?

The visible external structure of a lichen is made by the fungal partner which is in a symbiotic relationship with algae, contained inside, and sometimes other organisms, making it a tiny ecosystem rather than a single thing. These incredibly diverse life forms can occupy a wide range of habitats, including montane rocks and heaths in the most exposed and nutrient-poor situations. They do best when there’s little competition from vegetation so can be found growing on bare ground, amongst gravel and moss, and on boulders and outcrops. Very few lichens have English names, so one has to wrestle with the Latin.

Lower level lichens

Licheneering is a slow business  – it’s necessary to look carefully with a handlens at minute features which requires kneeling in bogs and lying face down on the ground. It’s not uncommon for passersby to ask if we’re alright. Sometimes getting out of the carpark takes ages but today we set off briskly from the A894 along the well-made path heading west into the corrie below Sail Gharbh, the highest point on the north east ridge of Quinag, our goal for the day. However soon we had to stop to admire Icmadophila ericetorum (photo 1) growing on bare peat, pink apothecia (fruiting bodies) sitting on a blue-green thallus (the lichen surface). Another peat specialist, Pycnothelia papillaria, was nearby with small brown-tipped stalks arising from a grey granular crust (photo 2).

After this we had to examine the many boulders on our route, soon finding the bronze-coloured snaking lobes of Allantoparmelia alpicola (photo 3) as well as glossy brown Cornicularia normoerica (photo 4). There were several Umbilicaria species seen during the day, U cylindrica (photo 5), with spiny margins, being the most common with U polyrrhiza (photo 6), U proboscidea and U torrefacta too. This genus loves exposed rock and occurs all the way up the mountain though probably more frequent the higher one goes.

Stereocaulon!

One genus which can be hard to identify to species level is Stereocaulon. This has a similar growth form to Cladonia – small basal lobes or granules which sometimes disappear, followed by a secondary more visible thallus with stalks supporting small phyllocladia (leafy outgrowths). During the day we saw lots of this genus and identified most as S vesuvianum, the commonest, which grows on rock. Also present, growing on the ground, was S condensatum (photo 7), not common in VC 108 (under-recorded?) but more widespread nationally. This has tiny stubby white phyllocladia and black cephalodia (structures containing cyanobacteria which can fix nitrogen).

One huge boulder had a sward on top of moss and lichens amongst fine gravel, just as you might find on the ground. Here we found a diminutive white Stereocaulon species which we initially identified as S condensatum, only later noticing the pale grey, smoother cephalodia. The much rarer S glareosum seemed to be a possible candidate but having checked with Dr Rebecca Yahr at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, an expert in this genus, it turned out to be Stereocaulon evolutum (photo 8) which is common but not reported from Quinag before.

Up towards Sail Gharbh summit

We left the path near Lochan Bealach Cornaidh and headed north to the start of the steep slope up Sail Gharbh (photo 9). Here we’d spotted from a distance some interesting outcrops the vertical faces of which turned out to have large patches of Coccotrema citrinescens, an uncommon crustose lichen which has its stronghold in NW Scotland, new to us (photo 10). Taking a small specimen allowed spores to be checked under the microscope and chemical tests done when back home. Climbing higher up the slope (photo 11) we found the first clusters of Cetrariella commixta (photo 12), a lovely mountain rock species with wavy-edged glossy brown lobes and tiny globose structures on the margins. These are pycnidia, part of the complex lichen reproduction system (photo 13).

Summit ridge

As we climbed higher the vegetation decreased and patches of bare ground became more frequent until, on the top of the Sail Gharbh ridge, at about 800m we were into the kind of montane conditions preferred by specialist lichens. As expected, here we found white strands of Thamnolia vermicularis, growing on bare ground and amongst mosses (photo 14), Pseudephebe pubescens forming hairy patches on exposed rocks (photo 15) and a sward of beautiful glossy chestnut brown Cetraria islandica spread over some distance on the mossy ground (photo 16). Also here were the distinctive Placopsis lambii on rock (photo 17), showing large pink cephalodia, and Protopannaria pezizoides on the ground, copiously fertile with red-brown discs (photo 18). Cladonia rangiferina, one of the less common reindeer lichens, was nearby.

Just before turning back, whilst on our knees examining a lovely patch of translucent spiny Ochrolechia frigida, a few strands of grey Alectoria nigricans (photos 19, 20) were spotted beside low-growing Salix herbacea, dwarf willow. This elusive montane lichen is hard to find and we usually see it when we’re already looking closely at something else. It’s feared to be in decline but is likely to be under-recorded, preferring to grow unobtrusively in summit wind-clipped heaths where few knowledgeable lichenologists go.

Reaching the top of the ridge opened up great views in all directions. Whilst here we heard a distant sound, like children shouting, which turned out to be two juvenile golden eagles calling far below us, circling in the corrie to the north west. Later, during our descent near Bealach a’ Chornaidh a female ring ouzel was searching for food amongst the boulders. We also saw a couple of lovely mountain flowers near the summit, Minuartia sedoides, cyphel (photo 21), and Kalmia procumbens, trailing azalea (photo 22).

In conclusion

It was satisfying to be able to increase the understanding of this under-recorded montane habitat – we noted 185 records of 74 lichen species for the day, spread over 6 monads, all of which have been submitted to the British Lichen Society where they are publicly available on request. More views and our route are in photos 23-25.

Caz Walker and Chris Cant

All photographs by the authors

 

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