Millionth lichen record marks milestone in biodiversity research

A major collaboration of amateurs and professionals has been working for ten years to record the health of Britain’s pollution-sensitive lichens, and is now celebrating the  millionth record. 

The British Lichen Society (BLS) is bringing together records made over the last 400 years. The database will identify where every one of the 1800 lichens native to Britain has been found. Once complete this will provide scientists with the most accurate indication to date of how the environment of Britain is changing.

The millionth record was made at an army training area in the Suffolk Breckland in October. “The Scaly Breck Lichen (Squamarina lentigera) now survives on only a few square metres of grass heath,” explained Peter Lambley, who found it. “The database shows the decline of this species from the early 1970’s when it was reasonably common in Breckland growing on broken turf in chalky grasslands. The causes of the decline are not certain but are probably a result of increased nitrogen from atmospheric deposition enriching the grasslands and thus closing up the sward.  In a last attempt to recover the population an area of turf adjacent to the colony will be scraped clear to try and create the conditions necessary for it to grow with co-operation of Natural England and the MoD Training Estates.”

The Lichen Database includes records from hundreds of churchyards, parklands, woods, heaths, mountains, and coastal sites. There is almost complete coverage within the British Isles from the remote island of St Kilda to the mountains of Snowdonia and the parks of central London. The records chart the impact of decreasing levels of smoke and sulphur dioxide in the latter part of the 20th century which allowed lichens to recolonise our towns and cities. But, they also reflect a change in the pollution environment with nitrogen deposition now an increasing threat to some of our more sensitive and rarest species.

“Lichens are the ‘canaries’ of the natural world and are often some of the first to respond to changes in air quality. The millionth record is a major step towards the completion of an immensely important resource”, added Stephen Ward, President of the BLS.

The project has been helped by financial support from the conservation agencies Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council of Wales. The support from professional botanists at The Natural History Museum, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and the National Museum of Wales has been critical in ensuring the quality of the data.

“This project is a prime example of the big society in action, where amateurs in partnership with a small number of professionals contribute to a vital understanding of our natural world”, concluded Ward.

The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is a charity (registration number SC007983)