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Field Studies Council: Bringing Environmental Understanding to All

British Lichen Society visits Malham Tarn Field Centre

Have you ever noticed the brightly coloured patches of growth that occur on our rocks, walls, trees and gravestones? These are Lichens, and there is a society for people who wish to study and protect these organisms: The British Lichen Society (BLS).

The British Lichen Society chose to spend its 2017 Spring Workshop at Malham Tarn Field Centre from the 18th - 25th April. It was led by two eminent lichenologists: Dr Allan Pentecost (current president of the British Lichen Society) and Dr Brian Coppins (former lichen specialist at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh). Twenty members attended, including several other knowledgeable lichenologists. Each morning they visited sites to look for lichens growing on limestone. On the very first day they discovered a rare species growing less than 200 metres from the Field Centre that had only been recorded twice before in England - named Sclerococcum griseisporodochium.

Other days included: 

  • A walk from Malham Tarn down the dry valley that leads to Malham Cove - where the group were happy to show many passing walkers how to look at lichens through hand-lenses (magnifying glasses) 
  • Exploring some old lead mine spoil above the Field Centre at 1700ft (518m) 
  • A visit to Lower Winskill Farm where farmer and archaeologist Tom Lord enabled the group to compare lichens growing on walls of different ages on his farm.

1 Brian Coppin , Allan Pentecost , Janet Simpkin - Malham Dry Valley By Judith Allinson
Brian Coppin, Allan Pentecost, Janet Simpkin - Malham Dry Valley by Judith Allinson

Lichens are the colorful patches of growth covering most of our rocks, walls, trees, tombstones. They are made out of fungi and algae, and together they are able to grow in stressful places where neither could grow by themselves.

There are almost 2000 species of lichen in Britain. Over 950 taxa of lichens and associated fungi have been found in Yorkshire, but only 756 are thought to be still growing. Dr Pentecost and Prof Mark Seaward of Bradford University made a study of lichens within a 5 km radius of Malham Tarn in 2001 and 346 species were recorded (including 48 from old records). This list will be increased after the April week. It is also possible that several of the specimens that they found on the week will be used in helping to give names to lichens that have not yet been named - yes there are new species to be found!

How do people gain an interest in lichens?

2 Tom Lord , Allan Pentecost , Brian Coppin - Lower Winskill By Judith Allinson
Tom Lord, Allan Pentecost and Brian Coppin - Lower Winskill Farm

Allan Pentecost gained a love for the area when he attended a university field course from Imperial College at Malham Tarn in 1969.

But he had gained an interest in lichens much earlier than that. Both he and Brian Coppins had attended the same secondary school and were taken on a field course to a Scottish island (Handa) whilst studying at Tunbridge Wells Technical School for Boys with their teacher John Charman. Both these show the importance of encouraging children and young people to go on Field Trips.

The BLS also produces a journal “The Lichenologist” which goes out to universities around the world.

3 Tom Lord , Allan Pentecost , Brian Coppins - Lower Winskill By Judith AllinsonTom Lord, Allan Pentecost and Brian Coppins - Lower Winskill Farm

If you would like to learn more about lichens, Dr Pentecost will be running an introductory single day to Lichens on Saturday 20th May and a more advanced three day course on the 7th - 10th July. Another way to get involved is the OPAL “Citizen Science project” - which provides a chart showing a few key lichens which indicate either clean air, or air that is polluted with a lot of nitrogen compounds from manure, slurry, and car fumes. You can also see if your local natural history society will run a lichen walk - as Allan Pentecost said; “Every walk in the countryside turns a few hours of exercise into a voyage of discovery”.

FSC also runs several lichen courses at our centres around the UK, some of which are run in partnership with the British Lichen Society - use the links below to find out more.


Story & Photos courtesy of Judith Allinson

FSC Lichens Courses

Checklist of Yorkshire Lichens, Lichenicolous Fungi and Allied Fungi              

The Opal Air Survey

The British Lichen Society (BLS)