National Trust steps in to rescue rare English lichen

Just as an art gallery would protect its collection of fine and rare paintings, the National Trust is attempting to save one of England’s rarest lichens.

The lungwort, a survivor of the ancient wildwood that grew in Britain after the last ice age, has been painstakingly transferred from a fallen oak to nearby trees.

The presence or absence of certain lichen species can be used to indicate the health of the ecosystem in which they are found. Experts say lichens act as early warning signals for future changes because of their sensitivity to disruption in their environment.

But the population of the frilly, greenish-gold lichen also known by its Latin name, Lobaria pulmonaria, has become increasingly rare in England since the 18th century as a result of air pollution, which lichens are particularly sensitive to, and habitat loss.

In the Lake District it exists in only a handful of sites, including on a veteran oak tree in Borrowdale, which formed what is thought to be the single largest community of the species in England.

The tree, thought to be between 200 and 300 years old, was struck down in a storm this year and conservationists said the lichen would have died if it had been left.

Ecologists and scientists have been monitoring the tree since it fell and locating suitable receptor trees to transplant the material before the wood started to deteriorate.

A team has carefully translocated a large patch of lungwort from the oak and reattached it to dozens of other trees across Borrowdale using wire mesh, staples and eco-friendly glue to help it survive.

The selected trees are scattered across different parts of the valley in an attempt to encourage the lichen to help make the Lake District population resilient to threats such as tree diseases, air pollution and climate change.

April Windle, a Cumbria Lichen and Bryophyte Group member who has been studying the tree for three years, championed the translocation attempt.

“Lichens are such amazing lifeforms and play such a fundamental role within these woods. They photosynthesise, regulate water and carbon cycles, provide food for invertebrates and nesting material for birds,” she said.

“They are also ecosystem pioneers – the first organisms to colonise bare surfaces, changing the baseline environmental conditions that allow other wildlife to move in and thrive.”

The transfer is the largest attempt made by the National Trust in partnership with the British Lichen Society, Cumbria Lichen and Bryophyte Group and Plantlife, with almost three square metres removed and transplanted on dozens of trees across Borrowdale, resulting in more than 100 translocations.

Maurice Pankhurst, the woodland ranger at the National Trust, said: “Often described as Celtic rainforests, these Atlantic woodlands are internationally important, part of the natural heritage of our country and crucial in understanding the impact of environmental change.

“Without our active conservation, we risk losing species like lungwort before we have had time to understand the subtle interconnections between the different species that keep these beautifully rich Atlantic woodlands in a healthy condition, and even how they can help influence our own human development.”

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