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Living in Devon, with its pristine air at coastlines and over high moors, and miles of lush lanes and quiet woodlands, we are party to the beauty and detail of diverse lichens in our midst. In some locations, there are startling wisps of rare usnea species, bearding elderly trees on misty days. In much of the county and into neighbouring counties too, rocks, and the twigs and branches of elderly trees are touched with golden parmelia whose reproductive apothecia cluster like tiny gold and jade jewels; or by woodland paths, the intriguing graphis scripta or ‘secret writing lichen’ marks natures codes on tree trunks. Tiny stems of red-tipped fruiting cladonia peer sometimes, from quartzite nooks in granite walls and on the backs mossy boulders. A camera or magnifying lens enhances these details significantly: beware, though, such observations can lead to full blown lichen intrigue and a compulsive longing to find and identify more of the stuff.
The British Lichen Society states that there are up to 1800 known varieties of lichen in the UK alone. Lichens (a sub genus of fungi, comprising in their make-up, of fungus, algae and bacteria) are often estranged from our common vocabularies of wild things: many, if not most country dwellers can identify some varieties of butterfly, bird, tree, amphibian, or wildflower: but who knows lichen? How quietly it dwells amongst us!
Lichen has always played a part in human culture as dyestuffs, animal fodder, preservatives, perfumes and medicines; but it is only in recent decades that scientists have discovered air quality can be monitored by lichen growth. With serious concerns arising in the 1970s, regarding levels of sulphur dioxide pollution in our atmosphere: global scientific observations of lichen growth found that specific species of lichen absent or present, correlated with air quality. This resulted in an accurate, global monitoring index, established by the 1990s.
However, it was as late as 2012 before British lichenologist J.E.J. Lewis proposed a similar monitoring process for nitrogen pollution, in his thesis: Bio-monitoring for atmospheric nitrogen pollution using epiphytic lichens and bryophytes. With nitrogen pollution a major contributory factor to global warming, respiratory diseases, and harm within air-land-water cycles: monitoring nitrogen is valuable research for local and global concerns.
“Nitrogen enrichment in sensitive habitats has become a matter of concern in recent years, and has led to the need to develop a bio-monitoring scheme that could be used by non-specialists to undertake site evaluation across the UK,” wrote Lewis; and from this statement onward, introduced the method by which this study could accurately, reliably and accessibly be carried out. (Lewis, J.E.J; 2012)*
The method, intentioned to be accessible to members of the public, was further developed by the British Lichen Society, so that all are now able to access the required information, to study and learn, and to participate in monitoring our local lichen distributions for the purpose of monitoring local air quality. The combined results of such monitoring, compiled by the BLS, builds a national picture of nitrogenic air pollution, species diversity and distribution.
For those who have not yet ventured to view more closely, the detail of lichen and how one variety differs in subtle detail to another, I encourage going and looking. Any reason to observe one single subject in nature, leads to delight in more reasons; and from pursuing this intriguing micro-botany into its habitats, curiosity is aroused to its awareness of geology, nature’s soundscape, and the diversity of landscapes or micro landscapes about us.
This serendipitous meandering differs, however, from monitoring lichens for more exacting study. As a forager, salvage-botanist, and otherwise wanderer of waysides, my ventures into lichenology have required additional focus. For the lay-person to take up and establish a new practice such as lichen identification for air monitoring: community support and encouragement via shared time, knowledge and learning-resources for field trips, are an advantage. It is also beneficial to the integrity of the study.
Over the past two years or so, I have covered some foundation of lichen identification from printed resources, gathered and photographed field samples, online contacts, and the BLS website with its many useful links. I would now like to share this knowledge with others who will carry the practice of lichen identification, for its own sake and for air quality monitoring, into their own communities and networks. This is work that deserves, and which is part of efforts towards change for sustainability and ultimately for the regeneration of eco systems.
What lichens have to tell the world, is magnificent and necessary. Please add your voice and involvement on behalf of this quiet front line.
by Lucy Lepchani
The first meeting of Lichen Club at the Glade on Sunday 23rd June will introduce the basics of lichen identification using samples, lenses, photographs and identification charts, and a mini field-trip. Further identification meet-ups will also take place this summer.
Cost is by donation, and will go towards furthering lichen awareness projects and resources.
A training day for those interested in the process of ongoing monitoring of lichens for air quality, will take place later in the autumn.
Other links and organisations:
Facebook groups: Lichen Whisperers Network; British Lichen Society
Instagram: #lichenwhisperer #lichenologist #lichenclub
References & further reading:
Lichens as Monitors of Air Pollution: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/00173139109427768
*Bio-monitoring for atmospheric nitrogen pollution using epiphytic lichens and bryophytes:
Lichen are unique organisms in our midst, and they grow on every continent on earth; on soil, trees, dead wood, stone, and other material structures. They can be found at sea level, surviving salt tides, and at all elevations through to alpine altitudes and climates.
Often overlooked for their delicate beauty and their inherent value, they are an ‘indicator’ species, which means the presence or absence of lichen growth indicates the health of eco-systems. Some species are considered amongst the oldest of living things on the planet.
Identifying and mapping the presence of lichen is an activity that brings delight and knowledge, and the potential for directing human activity in all our communities, towards greater wisdom. As for all living organisms, as habitats become more polluted, so lichen species are threatened. Many in the UK are in such decline as to be declared ‘rare’ or ‘threatened’
Lichen is pronounced ‘like-en’ or ‘litchen’ (to sound like ‘kitchen’) and both pronunciations are correct. Categorised under the fungus genus, they are actually a combination of species. Since 1867, they have been thought to be a symbiosis of fungus and algae, and the word symbiosis was coined to describe lichen. At this current time, developments in electron microscope technology show that a bacterium is also present in all species examined so far; so lichen are best described as a mutualistic organism, with each of the components offering some benefit to the others.
I became more aware of their diversity in recent years, after a lifelong appreciation of their beauty especially in Devon woodlands, Dartmoor and along the South West coastlines, where I spend leisure time. The presence of a good camera, or the camera on a smart phone, lends itself to looking at the finer details of their features: revealing worlds of beauty and fascination.
At a later point, I discovered that some fallen, storm-torn lichens as well as some which grow in the woodpile, lend themselves to lovely textile dyes; further studying them online, I have discovered that there are some species in our midst which offer medicinal properties: although these specimens are rare, and under increasing threat from air pollution and environmental degradation.
I began identifying different varieties of lichen with the same enthusiasm that my father identified butterflies and moths, and by which others seek out and identify birds, or wild flowers: and increasingly compelled to pursue identifying them at every possible opportunity. Without a biology or science background, I have found the British Lichen Society website ( www.britishlichensociety.org.uk) to be an excellent source of information, as well as many other excellent online resources. On contacting Dartmoor National Park for more information about local lichen education and information, I found out that
1) there are several areas of Dartmoor which are protected, and where no lichen may be gathered, even that which has fallen from its source; this may apply to other areas outside of the moor, too; and
2) there appears to be a dearth of local lichen resources and active enthusiasts in the South West.
Keen to find others locally who share my passion for lichen, and its place in ecology, ethnobotany, and culture, I am starting lichen clubs/lichen walks/lichen talks around the South West, with view to nurturing more enthusiasts and perhaps activists, and hopefully enticing some experts and academics ‘out of the woodwork’ too: to create an active network of ‘lichen whisperers’.
Those who run The Woodland Presents in North Woods have generously offered space at The Glade for a series of lichen influenced activities: I will be holding two Lichen Club meetings this summer (more, if there is demand) for the purposes of locating and identifying different types of lichen in the immediate environment, and elsewhere.
In the autumn I will be running a training day for group leaders and eco-activists who wish to learn the more advanced skills of how to monitor lichen diversity for the purpose of national/local air quality monitoring and recording.
All are welcome (free/donation)
Lucy Lepchani is an amateur lichenologist and ‘lichen whisperer’ who has become passionately interested in this class of organisms and its silent but magnificent presence amongst us. She also works in the arts, education, and coaching/therapy professions (www.lucylepchani.wordpress.com).
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