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We're delighted to have this week's Blog written by the wonderful Pete Martin, who shares our love of lichens and kindly brings his extensive knowledge to bear on these marvellous miniature marvels! 

Pictured above: Bunodophoron melanocarpum in Hows Wood. The black patches are masses of spores

"Visiting the Friends’ woodlands over the last few months has shown me how every wood is different, a unique combination of soil, climate, history and more. It’s true in terms of the overall shape and appearance of the woods, but also with the lichens that occur there.

In a way that’s not surprising: the age of a wood, the kinds of trees, the amount of light, the way trees have been cut down (or not), the amount of rainfall, the amount of pollution will all be different. But it’s only by getting close up and examining what’s going on that you realise how varied things are, how within the small area of the Lake District things can be so different.

Of course, there’s a caveat to this: new plantings attend to have pretty similar lichens once the trees are a few years old. There’s always a mosaic of common crustose species on smooth bark; some leafier stuff on the twigs. Lichens that thrive on nitrogen pollution tend to be doing well. But once we start looking at the older trees the character and history of each wood becomes apparent.

In Mike’s Wood at Staveley for instance, there’s some lovely  older “hoary” hawthorns among the newer plantings, dripping with leafy and fruity species such as Hypotrachyna revoluta and Ramalina farinosa. Nothing rare- but lively growth nonetheless. Among the older trees in a little enclosure (an old quarry?) there was lots of the large and leafy Peltigera species, “dog lichens”, suggestive of damper and older woods. Other species such as the “pepperpot lichen”, Pertusaria pertusa, were beginning to spread from older trees to younger ones; there were species of Cladonia lichens indicative of older woodlands and ecological continuity thriving on stumps.

In the Friends’ woods at Rusland there are some really old holly pollards: they might be over a thousand years old according to Luke Steer. But hollies tend not to have profuse lichen communities growing on them.

So whilst there was “barnacle lichen”, Thelotrema lepadinum (pictured below) and the fungus Stenocybe septata, both suggestive of old woodland, that wasn’t the really interesting part (from a lichen point of view). That was probably the pinheads, lichens whose fruiting bodies look like tiny pins or nails with a mass of spores on the top. These are often found on rotting/ dead trees, or in the crevices of older rough bark.

Pictured: The barnacle lichen, Thelotrema lepadinum, on one of the old holly pollards in the Rusland woods

There were also some species typical of acid-barked trees in wetter woodland, like the crisp cut Hypotrachyna laevigata and beard lichen Usnea cornuta. The history of coppicing and pollution from Lancashire’s industry has probably meant that these lichens have struggled to survive. If you’re a species that lives on trees it’s hard when they are cut down!

The wood at Threlkeld, Dam Mire, is very new. It’s almost all planted within the last few years. But there is always something of interest: the hoary hawthorns look like being a good source of lichens for the newer trees; there’s an old sycamore with crusts like Pertusaria pertusa and Pyrrohospora quernea and the walls had some interest too. Jelly lichens grow on an old mortared section and there was a clump of Sphaerophorus globosus, a coral lichen more normally found in older woodlands but equally happy on acid rocks.

Middle Bleansley Wood, near Broughton, is a varied place, including a very impressive amount of planting done by the previous owner. The stars of the show are the big old field trees: oak and ash pollards in the main. These didn’t have leafy lichens growing on them, the pollution from Millom and Barrow probably put paid to the species that might once have lived on them. But there were some impressive crustose communities on the craggy old trunks, and not just the commonly-found-in-Cumbria “white splat” Pertusaria species.

Pictured: Hoary branches at Middle Bleansley

There were large patches of waxy Pyrenula lichens (whilst common in Galloway and North Wales they seem rarer here for some reason) and Rinodina roboris (pictured below). This is a southern species, much more common in southern England, and usually found in old parkland in Cumbria.

Pictured: Rinodina roboris on an ash pollard at Middle Bleansley

And finally there’s Hows Wood in Eskdale. This has an intriguing history of being a coppice oak wood that was planted with conifers in the 1960s, and then cleared of conifers 30 years later. One might have thought that the management history would have cleared the lichen interest too. But whilst there is little of the Lobarion community of leafier lichens, there’s a lot of the species that like wet woodlands where high rainfall leaches the nutrients out of the bark, creating acid conditions. Many of these species can also live on rocks, and I suspect that is what has happened here. For the wood has lots of Hyptorachyna laevigata (pictured below) and the coral lichens Sphaerophorus globosus and Bunodophoron melanocarpum.

Pictured: Leafy Hypotrachyna laevigata and coral-like Sphaerophorus globosus in Hows Wood  

There were also some rarities; things known from only one or two similar woodlands in northern England, let alone Cumbria.

Pictured: The “tinned apricot“ fruting bodies of Coenogonium luteum in Hows Wood

The rarities will draw me back: are they only growing on the one tree I happened to see them? But all of these woods contain enough interest for several visits. And they will change over time. The Friends’ woods are well worth visiting by anyone: to see the variety of types of Lakeland woodland, to admire the profusion of biodiversity and wildlife that can be found there. It’s also interesting to see how the Friends will look after them and to join in that job of protecting and improving them for the future."

Pete Martin