My Lichen Summer School

Visitors might be drawn in by the birds, bats and butterflies, or even the possibility of seeing an elusive otter, but the Bovey Valley, in the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve is also renowned for its more unassuming residents, an internationally renowned lichen population.

Witches whiskers Usnea florida
The rare witches whiskers lichen Usnea florida is found in the Bovey Valley

Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between a fungus, and at least one photosynthetic partner, usually an alga. They can colonise almost anywhere, but it’s the tree-dwellers which are attracting the attention of conservationists, as part of the Building Resilience in South West Woodlands project. This project is led by Plantlife and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and aims to conserve the globally important woodland lichens found in the south-west’s temperate rainforests.

Last summer, I joined Plantlife, project partners the Woodland Trust and Natural England, and a gang of volunteers to kick off an ongoing project to manage and monitor this Special Area of Conservation’s ancient wood boundaries. These boundaries provide important linkages for lichens across the East Dartmoor NNR.

Lichen surveyors thanking the National Lottery Heritage Fund for their funding support

I used the data from last summer’s surveying as part of a research project for my degree in Environmental Biology, and joined the survey again this year, to see the progress so far.  Although at first glance participating in a lichen survey might seem daunting, it’s a pleasant way to spend a day outdoors. Before heading out into the woods, workshops were organised, covering the biology of lichen, survey technique and veteran tree management.

Surveying the boundary trees along the Old Manaton Road
Wood bank survey sheet – July 2018

Because this project uses both citizen science and experienced lichenologists, a larger number of trees can be surveyed than if a specialist was required for all the data collection. This means that volunteer surveyors don’t need to be able to identify lichen species, but are instead trained to visually differentiate between lichen growth forms and to record abundance. Some lichens can be identified easily on sight, but some need a trained eye. Leaving this part to the experts means that anyone can join in surveying, with small groups working together to record things such as: the abundance and number of species of lichen; moss coverage; tree girth; canopy cover; shrub layer characteristics.

Sharing skills – in this project experts and volunteer surveyors work side by side

As a student, it was good to get some experience surveying a lesser studied organism. One of the benefits of studying lichen is the guarantee of data; your dissertation won’t be scuppered because you couldn’t find any. Being able to spend time in the woodland, with people who are genuinely passionate about the natural world (and know the best spots to see tree creepers and nesting wagtails) was a real joy.

Between this summer and the last, the difference that winter management has made on some of the ancient wood banks has been profound. One of the major themes of my research project was the effect of light conditions. Prior to 2018, lichens, mosses and liverworts were being affected by high levels of shading. Winter management included removal of some of the shrub layer, particularly holly. Lichen communities are very slow to change, so the effect of this management won’t be seen in the data for a while yet, but the conditions for lichen (and surveyors!) has greatly improved.

Jack measuring the canopy cover – winter thinning work is improving conditions for lichens

Joining the lichen survey has been a great way to increase my knowledge about an underappreciated part our wildlife, as well as the ecology and history of the area.  Lichen spotting is a fun and easy way to get out into nature and experience the landscape from a different angle. Whether you find the spindly arms of ‘witches’ whiskers’ (the rare Usnea florida) or the warty crust of the barnacle lichen Thelotrema lepadinum, you’re contributing to science which helps conserve such a special place.

Written by Rosie Pash

UPCOMING EVENT – December 10th – Lichen Survey and Woodland Walk at East Dartmoor NNR
Dartmoor’s woods are home to some internationally important lichens including the beautiful witches whiskers and string-of-sausages. Come and take part in this annual survey of the woods to see where these two lichens are growing. No previous experience of lichen identification is needed as training will be provided. You can book your place here.

And to read more about this fascinating project follow this link to the second edition of the Building Resilience newsletter – Rainforest Report – July 2019.

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