Tree lungwort lichen in western Ireland 🍄

Since 2013 I have been visiting a small area of ‘Celtic rainforest’ I know in Co. Mayo in Western Ireland. It’s hard to find much ecologically significant woodland in Mayo, a place of vast peat bogs, wetlands and where the woodlands are largely low diversity plantations of spruce and larch. Nine years ago I found one woodland on the map and asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind dropping me off there. In March 2022 I had about 30 minutes to check in on this real gem of an oak woodland.

I don’t want to give the name of the woodland openly because it is incredibly sensitive and is already experiencing the impacts of anti-social behaviour (fires, litter, human waste… not that you would head straight there to mess it up!) but if you want to know the details you can contact me via email for info (unlockinglandscapes@gmail.com). It’s one of the special Western Atlantic oak woodlands which the western edges of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are known for. This woodland is rich in ancient woodland plantlife and is also good for fungi, as you might expect due to the long-term stability of ancient woodland species communities.

Upon entering I spotted the little red traffic light of a scarlet elf cup in among the moss. This is a species which thrives in damp and shady woodlands near water.

The woodland here is close to a large lough so it is never short on moisture.

I was astonished to find this naturally-occuring terrarium on the woodland floor. Someone had chucked a jar here and the mosses and other plantlife had colonised it.

Anyway, I was here to check for an uncommon lichen in the UK & Ireland – tree lungwort, Lobaria pulmonaria. It’s a massive lichen that can be found in these ‘Celtic rainforest‘ habitats. The Woodland Trust say it’s an incredibly rare habitat.

After a few minutes of searching where I had found it back in 2017, I saw this. It is a seriously impressive species.

I was so pleased to find the tree lungwort again. It’s unlike similar organisms we find in the UK. It makes far more of its fungal elements than other lichens through its size and spread. Remember: in lichens, fungi provide the physical structure and fruiting mechanism (usually a cup-style spore shooter), while the cyanobacteria or algae are able to photosynthesise and harvest energy from the sunlight.

The oak trees in Celtic rainforest provide habitat for plants as well as lichen. There are often modest ivy vines trailing the trunk, as well as other epiphytes such as ferns and mosses:

Another thing I noticed was oaks leafing on the 31st March. This may be the earliest I have ever seen oak come into leaf, but the race between ash and oak is certainly a contest. The old saying of “If the oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash, if the ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak” doesn’t quite play out from my experience. The very warm March we’ve experienced in the British Isles has possibly more of a role to play in this than traditional benign weather or climate patterns might.

One thing I learned from observing the other communities of tree lungwort were that the lichen seemed to prefer younger trees. I didn’t observe any on more mature specimens of oak. There didn’t appear to be a lot of oak regenaration but then again there was no danger of overgrazing due to the quite isolated nature of the woodland, its lough-side location and livestock being nowhere near.

Another lichen I observed was one of the pixie cup lichens in the Cladonia group but I couldn’t tell you the exact species.

There were many candidates for #StickOfTheWeek, so much so that there wasn’t even much of a stick to look at!

Thanks for reading

Further fungi

Loch Lomond, where two continents collide

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Loch Lomond, Scotland, September 2019

I am very fortunate to be able to visit relatives at the foot of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a landscape that I first experienced when visiting family in Perthshire and Stirlingshire about 10 years ago. My family haven taken me to visit the dramatic hills north of Perth, places like the Pass of Killicrankie, the ancient Birnam oak and sycamore, and Rob Roy’s grave in Balquhidder. My cousin was married in Pitlochry one Christmas and the misty woods of the southern Scottish Highlands left their mark on my sense of the place: dark, mysterious and forbidding. Little did I know that it was so close to an ancient continental clash, the Highland Boundary Fault:

Around 430 million years ago two small continents, one equating to modern Scandinavia and the other to the eastern seaboard of North America slammed, geologically speaking, into each other throwing up a vast mountain range similar in many respects to the modern Himalayas. At the height of the uplifting phase the peaks may have breached even the 30,000ft ceiling. – via Greg Murray, Scotlandinfo.eu

Those mountains thrown up are the Scottish Highlands, themselves now ground down to the rounded hills they largely present themselves to be. Just imagine, two continents once with their own flora and fauna now fused together.

The Highland Boundary Fault actually cuts through the northern part of Loch Lomond. If my geology is correct this picture was taken on the south-eastern side of the fault. Two worlds, long since collided.

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Like so many of the landscapes we hold dear in the UK, Loch Lomond was formed by the retreating glaciers over a period over several hundred thousand years. On the shore this oak tree protruded from an area of soil, still managing to survive with most of its roots probably under water.

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Oaks don’t like it too wet in the UK, unlike willow, aspen or alder, the last of which actually needs flowing water to prosper. Oaks like soil that drains well which makes this one all the more unusual. Like everything in nature, there will be an explanation.

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Loch Lomond is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, made more diverse by the series of islands that are dotted across the surface of the lake. The result of the messy retreat of glaciers, dragging rocks and debris along with them, the ensuing flow of water from the melting ice carving out more of the landscape and filling it with water.

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Along the shores of Loch Lomond, Western Atlantic Woodlands grow mossy and wild. More civilised was the flow of walkers along the West Highland Way. Americans, Germans, French, English and indeed Scots were present in a constant flow (bar the pic above). I know this type of woodland as Celtic Rainforest. They are found in the western, wet areas of the British Isles such as here in Scotland, Wales, south-western England and western Ireland. They abound with mosses and liverworts, and they drip with lichens. They get branded as Celtic from the fact they exist in areas where the ancient Celtic-speaking tribes of Britain presided. They consist of oak, birch and hazel in the main.

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For anyone who has seen this website before it will come as no surprise to read that I was on the lookout for fungi. I found this species of what I reckon might be a kind of honey fungus (Armillaria) and some pleasing spreads of sulphur tuft:

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These mushrooms were at a part in the West Highland Way where walkers would pause to catch their breath. I heard lots of snapshots of conversations here, like the two Americans remarking that Donald Trump was a conspiracy theorist (no, really?).

I was quizzed by a couple from Yorkshire about what I would do with the fungi photos.

‘Do you print them or put them in an album?’ a woman asked.

‘I put them online, usually,’ I said. ‘But the main thing is to enjoy being out here.’

I was trying to sound virtuous, then again they were the ones who were walking the near-100 miles of the trail in pretty woeful conditions before then. The woman showed me that she had a film camera with her, a passion she had held for decades. More than anything when looking for or photographing mushrooms, the pleasure is in the moment of finding something, be it new, interesting or unusual.

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Before heading back beyond the Highland Fault to visit my family for the evening, I was taken aback to hear a raven low in an oak, belting out its call. I had never seen one so close. It sounded so much like its words were oak, oak, oak!

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Whatever it meant, the raven surely could not have known that its flight across Loch Lomond took in two continents.

Thanks for reading.

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