Monday 8 December 2008

Ballachuan Hazelwood SSSI

I wanted to go to Ballachuan ever since listening to Sandy and Brian Coppins’ visit there on the radio at 6 am on a Radio 4 Living World programme. Plus - any excuse to go up north again, although it is a long way and with petrol prices currently high I was keeping to 60 to ease the burden on my wallet, car and planet. Others, living different lives, pass me at up to 120. Supper is fish and chips in Oban then straight down to Cuan to camp on the sea cliffs overlooking the village. With everything sorted out it is time for a beer while soaking up the blissful serenity of a calm, dry evening looking out on the sun setting behind islands and listening to herons and owls screech.

Cuan sunsetThe predicted rain started before dawn and persisted more-or-less all day.

Andy Acton and Anna Griffiths are leading the excursion. About 20 of us meet up at the church which overlooks the wood which is a Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve occupying a long, straight, narrow ridge. Most of it is a closed canopy of hazel with a scattering of standard trees, some of which are also hazel – an unusual sight. Ballachuan HazelwoodThe wood is stacked with rarities but with such poor weather everything is sopping wet, lenses fog up and searching is harder. I don’t find any of the Scotland endemics (I wanted to snap a picture of Graphis alboscripta) but Andy identifies Leptogium brebissonii, Nectriopsis lacanodesThelotrema petractoides and Pyrenula laevigata which are new to me. In addition to the usual Scottish species I find a tiny scrap of Pseudocythellaria crocata and spot a beautiful parasitic fungus (Nectriopsis lecanodes) on Lobaria virens.

Leptogium brebissonii Thelotrema petractoides Pyrenula laevigata

The incredible diversity of this wood derives from its great age and continuity. It is suspected that there has been hazel woodland here ever since it was first colonised soon after the end of the ice age. Moreover, there has been little management, maybe some selective cutting rather than clear-felling, and appropriate grazing. The Hazel has been allowed to do its own thing – forming new stems continually to replace gaps in the canopy and hence always providing a hazel gloves fungushumid, closed canopy and new substrate close by for lichens to re-colonise. Another thought: being a linear feature, there is a high proportion of woodland edge for species which prefer more open and better-lit conditions. Another striking feature is the frequency of the rare and spectacular hazel gloves fungus (Hypocreopsis rhododendri), another indicator of woodland continuity. For a much more detailed article about hazel and lichens see:

The visit ends and we go our separate ways. It has been fun getting to know new people even though just for a morning. After lunch I check out an old record of hazel gloves in dense hazel on the precipitous coastal cliffs (far right of picture - a good example of ‘slope hazelwood’ I suppose!). I didn’t find it but it was an interesting challenge to even get into the woods at all.

Cuan coast
Places like Ballachuan hazelwood provide inspiration and a wonderful insight into how nature works when its not messed around with too much.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

Kielder Forest

With 250 square miles of conifer plantation and the largest man-made lake in northern Europe this is not really the first place a naturalist would think of going. But Kielder is a stronghold for red Forest roadsquirrel, goshawk, otter, blanket bog and much more (just don’t mention the midges).

I’ve been up there a few times in the last couple of years, checking out the lichens on crags in the forest or just wandering aimlessly. Sometimes you find a sign forbidding access due to forestry operations but if no one is around and it seems safe I just go on (I think they forget to take the signs down). It must be fun learning to use those forest harvester machines. Forest harvesterBut I wonder if it gets boring after you have felled, snedded and cut-to-size your 10,000th tree.

The Cladonia lichens on the road sides and in the fire breaks are amazing. Mostly very common species but big and butch and raised on steak, beans and singing hinnies. Lichen forest with Cladonia sulphurina

There is Cladonia sulphurina looking like organ pipes, lawns of glauca, thickets of gracilis, and polydactyla showing off that it can do anything you can do but better. There is hardly anywhere to tread without squashing things. Brilliant. If they were edible they would make a great-looking salad. Cladonia glaucaIt must be the combination of an ideal substrate, high rainfall and the humid shelter provided by the forest that allows them to grow so well and there are hundreds of miles of forest roads with bank sides perfect for growing them.

Cladonia polydactylaThe mires in the Kielder area are internationally important and support thick carpets of plants such as Sphagnum, bog asphodel, bog rosemary, sundew, cross-leaved heath and cotton-grass. Although the mire edges were planted up during less enlightened times the Forestry Commission have put in a Herculean effort and at least £1 million to put this right over the last five years. Most trees were harvested but where the ground was too soft they were mulched, from the top down where they stood, using specially developed machinery. The result is, at first sight, a scene of devastation but the mire vegetation Cladonia polydactylais quickly coming back. I am monitoring the recovery with fixed point photos.

Mulched trees at mire edge There is definitely more in the forest than just the trees.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Water tank

Last summer we camped at a site called Yont the Cleugh a few miles south of Haltwhistle. A nice place run by nice people. I noticed this lichen-coated water tank there. It has a distinct line above which there are no lichens. The lichens are mostly Physcia tenella with some Melanelixia fuliginosa ssp glabratula and Parmelia sulcata.

It is quite obvious that this lichen line relates to the water level inside. During dewy weather, condensation must form on the tank up to the level of the cold water inside. Lichen propagules, mainly soredia and isidia, stick to the dew and when it dries out the propagules become stuck to the tank. Clearly, many of them have managed to establish a permanent foothold in this way. There is a plentiful supply of propagules since the tank is situated underneath trees.

The label on the tank adds another twist to the story. The lichens are confined to the dark lettering and diagrams while the white areas are almost completely bare. Touching the label I could tell that there is no difference in texture; both light and dark areas are equally smooth so it must be due to condensation forming preferentially on the dark areas. This takes me back to my Physics ‘A’ level at school and Black Body Radiation. Darker objects heat up more quickly in the sun, but they also lose heat faster at night. Consequently, the dark printed areas on the label get colder and are more likely to form dew, and catch lichen propagules, than the white areas.

The astonishing thing for me is that this effect works at such a small scale, even the thin, black border lines on the label have lichens growing on them.

On the left side of the tank is an area swept clean of lichens by wind-blown nettles, except just above and below a step in the tank which protects them.

On the far right of the tank there is a lichen-free column in the shelter of the blue pipe. Does the pipe keep that bit of tank warmer which prevents dew formation? Or is there a leak that washes that area clean?

Mosses are clearly not so good at attaching to smooth plastic. The only bit of moss is growing on a ledge formed by the peeling top edge of the label.

I wonder how dew formation might affect lichen distribution in natural situations.

Saturday 26 January 2008

Thursday 24 January 2008

Kinlochewe November 2007

Talladale oakThe Native Woodland Discussion Group is running a lichen workshop at the Beinn Eighe offices, led by Brian and Sandy Coppins. On the way up I gave a lift to Matilda Scharsach, the new lower plant officer for Plantlife, and great company for the drive up the A9. The workshop is a chance to be with lichen folk and other naturalists, get out in wonderful Scotland, and soak up some lichen ecology tips from the experts.
Degelia atlantica
On separate days we search the oak woodland and pine forests near Loch Maree, returning to the lab with specimens to identify. There are the usual gorgeous, leafy, Atlantic Oakwood lichens, such as Lobaria pulmonaria, L. virens, Degelia atlantica, Sticta sylvatica and Pannaria rubiginosa. I never tire of seeing these because you don’t get them where I live and they look so fresh and succulent in the wet oceanic climate. There are also some tiny leafy ones such a Parmeliella parvula and Pannaria conoplea. Pachyphiale carneola is very common here and fruiting abundantly, looking like tiny orange-red fruit gums. Pachyphiale carneolaAndy Acton showed me Pertusaria ophthalmiza. Pertusaria ophthalmizaIt starts raining hard but some of us decide to stay out a bit longer. I am rewarded by finding Hypotrachyna taylorensisHypotrachyna taylorensis on a birch; apparently it has not been seen here for decades. I was just lucky to look at the right tree, one of hundreds – but it still leaves a warm glow to find it.

Native Scottish pinewoods have a special character. The trees are usually more widely Pinewood with rainbowChaenotheca brunneolaspaced and often occupy more interesting, craggy ground. At first sight the trunks seem clean but looking more closely, in the bark crevices, there is lots to see. The acidic bark has a distinct lichen flora. It is always nice to see the pure white fruits of Micarea alabastrites. Micarea alabastritesMycoblastis sanguinarius is everywhere. We find Platismatia glauca in fruit and a nice patch of Chaenotheca brunneola. Other species are less distinctive, such as Mycoblastis caesius, but to a lichen fan they are all interesting finds.

Platismatia glauca
The best bit was when someone spotted Ochrolechia szatalaensis on a rowan tree – gorgeous. Fruits like sugar-dusted jellies. Confectioners could get inspiration from things like this.
Ochrolechia szatalaensis
Our evenings are spent at the Kinlochewe Hotel where the food, bar and conversation are excellent.

I am camping in order to try out my new Vango Tornado 300. It pitches in one go – inner and outer together - and has nice shiny blue and gold poles. It is built for three although you would be like sardines, but plenty of room just for me. It copes with the awful weather with no problem. It is wonderfully satisfying to be inside a trustworthy tent when all hell is raging outside.