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Thursday, 8 December 2016

Likin' lichens


Move mouse over the image above to magnify, or  tap the image if using a touch screen (a lichen clad Oak on the patch)

I've found that with several difficult groups (mosses being another one), it's difficult for a novice to find a 'way in'. You're immediately plunged into the deep-end - lots of similar, hard to identify species, unfamiliar terminology and resources mainly aimed at experts. For this reason I've created a...

...Beginners Guide to Lichens

What are lichens?
Lichens are fascinating - they consist of a fungus and algae partnership. The fungus benefits from the arrangement because the algae produce food by photosynthesis. The algae benefits by being protected and anchored by the fungus.

When trying to identify a lichen, it's useful to note:

a) the form of the lichen
Crust (Crustose) closely adhering to the substrate.
Leafy (thallose) lobes with root like structures (rhizines).

Bushy (foliose) attached to the substrate only at the base.

b) what is it growing on (the substrate)
On wood - trees, fences
on rock / brick
on the ground - amongst, 
moss, grass, soil
c) does it  have fruiting bodies
These can take several forms, the most obvious ones being 'flasks', 'saucers' or 'spots' (apothecia)*

E) what colour is it -
 in the case of the leafy and bushy lichens it's useful to look not at the colours underneath as well as on top of the thallose
'Starter Species'
I find that a big part of the 'way in' for any difficult group is to have 5 or 6 'starter species'. These are common and easily recognised - not easily confused. Once I have learnt to recognise these then I can start to add to my knowledge.
Xanthoria parietina
- Yellow & leafy, on wood & rock

Parmelia sulcata
- 'hammered metal' pattern on thallus

Evernia prunastri
- several look similar to this
but look for white (not green) undersides

Usnea
- fine and beard-like
U. subfloridana is the commonest

Physcia
- 'whiskers' on thallus P. tennella & P. adscendens are the commnest

Lecidella elaeochroma (black) and Lecanora chlarotera (white) -individually these are confusable with other species, but when together (as they often are) they are likely to be these species


Indicators of  Pollution
Many lichens are sensitive to atmospheric pollution. Different species are sensitive to different pollutants. For this reason the can act as 'canaries' - bio-indicators of air quality.

Ramalina fraxinea (the large straggly lichen in the top photo) is very sensitive to sulphur dioxide pollution. It became extinct in many areas in the 70's. Now with improving air quality it's starting to return.  On the other hand, Xanthoria parietina (pictured is above) is very tolerant of pollution.

My favourite lichen-fact
It's estimated that 6% of the Earth’s land surface is covered by lichens. By my calculations that’s 1,473,699 times the size of Wales (as every schoolboy knows a 'Wales' is the standard unit of measurement of surface area).

Useful Links
British Lichens
A guide to lichens on twigs
A key to common lichens on trees in England
Alan Silverside's Lichen pages


Thanks to those who've help with suggestions and information.


*there are other kinds of reproductive structures - namely Isidia and Sorelia.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Environmental Grief - Psychologically, how we can deal with the destruction of nature


A slightly different post this week - moving away from the patch to look at a more general subject

We are in the midst of a mass extinction. These are rare events in the Earth's history, the last one wiped out the dinosaurs. This one is the result of human activity.

For a person, with even the slightest concern for the natural world, the reality which confronts them is one of extinction, destruction and devastation. To take a random, recent batch of headlines from the environmental coalface - 'huge fall in African elephant population as poaching crisis continues', ‘the home of the endangered Iberian lynx is under threat’, '40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines.

A baleful picture is paraded across our television screens, newspapers and social media feeds. We’re watching a catalogue of catastrophe - a dreadful litany describing a disappearing world.

A word that sums this up is 'loss'. We are losing things we love - they are going day by day. The normal human reaction to a profound sense of loss is grief and the course of grief is often described as going through 5 stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.

The assumption here is that there is a single event to which we have a grief response and as “time heals every wound” it’s something we recover from. Environmental grief is unfortunately rather different. As soon as we come to terms with a world without such and such a thing, we are confronted with a further piece of bad news. In some ways it’s worse than bad news though, wars are shocking but they tend to end. Terrible conflicts can be resolved, sworn enemies can become the greatest of friends. Species that go extinct stay extinct.

How is it possible to deal with this? Psychologically how do we cope with what can be a depressing sense of things getting worse?

The fact is we do cope - we carry on.

Some of the approaches to this could be characterised as ‘putting things in perspective’. This might, by some, be construed as a prospectus for caring less. I think the opposite is true and was well described in a recent article in Scientific American called ‘Facing Down Environmental Grief’, which asked ‘Is a traumatic sense of loss freezing action against climate change?’

For me it’s a case of avoiding a headlong rush to despair which often results in a, bury your head in the sand, attitude. It becomes all too much to bear, so you switch off – a case of fingers in the ears – ‘la, la, la, I can’t hear you’. Despair, in turn, leads to disengagement and inaction. Watching The Great British Bake Off becomes soothingly preferable to reading about the latest environmental catastrophe.

I'm going to look at some of the approaches to this issue – coping strategies that keep desperation in check. Yes, possibly at times, donning the rose tinted spectacles, but at least these are things you can see something through, unlike the blackout mask of despair – the total darkness of ignorance.

See the positive
To go back for a minute to my gloomy headline – ‘40% of UK species show strong or moderate declines’. What a depressing picture this is - not far off half of British species on the wane. However, I missed out the second part of the headline – ‘whereas just over 30% show strong or moderate increases.’ Now, not quite the empty pint glass of despondency, more like the half full glass of consolation (30% of species will be stable). Granted, this situation is far from good, there are no two ways about it, a lot of British wildlife is in a parlous state, but there are positive nuggets to be found amongst the doom and gloom.

Little Egret
My greatest wildlife passion is birdwatching and I often bemoan the sorry fortunes of much loved birds – Wood warbler, Skylark, Lapwing. However, I also delight in the recent upswing in the numbers of some formerly rare birds - Red Kites, Buzzard and Raven.

These latter three species are doing well because they’re no longer subject to the persecution of old. This now more enlightened attitude is, in itself a positive, and we can take heart from the success stories – the habitats preserved, the dwindling species brought back from the brink and the environmental treaties enacted. Yes, there are forces for good in the world – let’s celebrate them.

So by way of an antidote to the earlier gloomy headlines, here are a few more recent positive stories – ‘Europe’s key animals making a comeback’, 'New York City Air Quality Cleanest in Decades', 'Our 2016 RSPB reserve survey reveals another record breaking year for Bitterns'.

Accept change
Not only is change happening, the rate of change is accelerating, we see it in almost every aspect of our lives – cultural, technological and environmental. Homo sapiens has evolved to deal with a certain amount of change, however the rapid transformations we see today are unprecedented in our species’ history.

Rapid change is often cited as a cause of stress. While it may be difficult to actually embrace change, perhaps an attitude of a little more acceptance is a way of being kinder to ourselves. Does this mean sitting back, unconcerned while bad things happen – absolutely not. It means being better able to remain engaged, and to return to my theme, not allowing despair to make us look the other way.

I was recently treated to the amazing site of a congregation of 120 Little egrets and 6 Great white egrets on the Conwy Estuary, not just a ‘heron priested shore’ more the massed ranks of an entire, white clad, holy order. These are now frequently seen species which, just a couple of decades ago, would have been regarded as great rarities.

This, however, is a gain with quite a sting in its tail. The increase in the populations of some water birds is almost certainly the result of climate change. A number of species are now able to survive in Britain due our milder winters.

Very little in nature is constant, a state of flux is more the norm. However rapid climate change will result in a global reordering that has few precedents in the history of the earth. There will be winners and losers as species adapt, or indeed fail to adapt, to a warming world. It’s likely that the number of losers will far exceed the winners.

My point here comes back to allowing ourselves some crumbs of comfort - it’s, psychologically, the more healthy thing to do. So, if we mourn the loss of one of the losers, we’ve earned the right to toast the fortunes of the winners.

Be aware of Declinism
Declinism is the fairly universal human trait that predisposes us to view the past in a favourable light and the future with pessimism – one of many cognitive bias’s that influence the way we think. It's the common saying of the older generation 'things were better in my day'. This cry is heard today as it was in the days of Ancient Rome, it was probably even grunted by the aged cavewoman!

But what if things actually are getting worse, then surely declinism is no longer a delusion, but an entirely rational response? This is true, however, I'm simply pointing out, that this way of thinking may make things appear even worse than they actually are – something to, at least, watch out for in ourselves. 

Change our perception of what nature is.
Some geologists contend that the current age of human activity is changing the Earth so profoundly that it warrants its own name – the Athropocene. Whatever we call it, it’s clear that mother nature is covered with the greasy fingerprints of human activity wherever we care to look. Nowhere on Earth remains as a pristine, pre-human garden of Eden.

Absolutely and unequivocally we should do our utmost to preserve what remains of the Earth’s natural wonders – it’s vital that we do. Tremendously sad as their passing may be, nature in some form or other will endure. We’re back to the question of how we deal with change. If we love and care about nature – the Anthropocene world is, by definition, the one we care about.

A slight shift in perception, perhaps, allows us to marvel at a forest regenerating after felling, an abandoned factory overgrown with mosses and ferns or a former quarry, now host to nesting Peregrines. In most peoples’ eyes these ‘manscapes’ would come a poor second to the supposed wildernesses which parade across our TV screens in the latest Attenborough epic.

These parts of the ‘Living Planet’ are often what we think of when we think of ‘real’ nature – we expect the full Technicolour, surround sound version, complete with Serengeti megafauna or vibrant rainforest. Well, we’re much less likely to see these places ‘in the flesh’, than to see our backyard, wildlife companions. As well as rightly grieving for the disappearance of these wild places, we can take the odd comforting crumb from the way that nature continues, and indeed flourishes, right under our feet.

To put it bluntly the Anthropocene age is upon us - this is irreversible and inevitable. We can remain in an anst-ridden state, constantly railing against its depravations. Alternatively, and if only for the sake of mental health, we can accept the reality of a globe, everywhere sullied by man's footprints and perhaps even learn to love it.

Celebrate human progress
To focus for a moment on the purely human realm, I believe that things are improving. Admittedly, this view can be a very hard sell during what is, in some ways, a dismal decade. Human progress, however, is very much two steps forward one step back.

Yes, there are immense challenges and setbacks, but look at the gains. Once deadly diseases are being eradicated, child mortality is being reduced, people are living longer and are better fed. Superiority is no longer conferred upon someone simply for being a white, heterosexual, male – we are more civilised and peaceful than ever before.

Some may view the last claim as being highly debatable, pointing to the slew of recent headlines describing wars, terrorism and all manner of barbarities. The important thing to remember is that we are massively more informed about these events than former generations. Events on a par with modern day horrors would have previously gone unreported. That the world is becoming an ever more peaceful place is well described in Steven Pinker’s excellent book ‘Better Angels of Our Nature’.

This alone provides some measure of consolation, but to return the focus back to the natural world – we can also celebrate the fact that here too there is progress. The obvious caveat looms large at this point – humans are a uniquely destructive species,that may well destroy whole swathes of life on the planet – as caveats go that’s a big one!

Consider though that recent generations are the first to outlaw cruelty to animals, the first to protect wild places, the first to enact environmental legislation. That animals might have rights, which weren’t even afforded to women or non-whites, would have been seen as a self-evidently crackpot notion. Now the idea that animals are conscious, and should be treated as such, is so mainstream that respected scientists, such as Steven Hawking, feel able to signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness – which attests to the fact.

Yes, we’re highly skilled at laying waste to the planet – to soiling our own backyard. The Homo sapien intellect, conferred upon us by evolution is very much a double edged sword. The brains that enabled us to dominate and indeed blight the planet, are the same ones that allow us to think about the repercussions of our actions. The same ones that can see the virtue in a more enlightened view of the earth and our fellow creatures. The same ones that might, at the eleventh hour, have the ingenuity and the will to bring about a measure of ecological salvation.

Take a long view
After around 3 billion years everything will become extinct. The sun will expand and warm, ultimately resulting in the Earth’s inability to support life. After a further 4 billion years the Earth will be absorbed by the Sun - our home planet will no longer exist.

Everything we now hold dear - the forests, the oceans, the species, the man-made wonders, the people, will be just the trace of a memory - the rumour of a whisper - a brief flash of life in the long cosmic night.

So again this raises a question – if everything will eventually, become extinct why bother about it happening during our lifetime? Well my answer would be, we only have the one lifetime – our brief moment on the stage – during that time things we care deeply about are as important as important gets.
It’s up to us to decide what makes the cut in our personal list of priorities. During our time on Earth you could almost say our ‘job’ is to find meaning - to decide on what matters.

This long view, as with other ways of putting things in perspective, are things we can tell ourselves, a mental slight of hand even. So in the middle of the night – we have a soothing balm to keep despair at bay – and so we are able to fight on.

The dinosaurs were witness to a mass extinction, as are we. Unlike the dinosaurs we can see it coming, unlike the dinosaurs we can do something about it.


POST SCRIPT
Do Something
I've been dealing with pyschological responses to environmental destruction. The things that can actually be done are for another blog post. However it's worth mentioning that taking an action of some sort is one of the most effective ways of combating grief. When it comes to feeling better about the world, doing something knocks sitting back, right into that proverbial cocked hat.

This may seem daunting at first - ‘how can I stave off mass extinction?!’ Well single-handedly you can’t - a few, particularly heroic people, put themselves on the environmental ‘front-line’, or are influential enough to be listed amongst the Guardian's '50 people who could save the planet'.

However, to use that over-worked cliché - everyone can make a difference. Make a difference to the planet, yes, but just as importantly for the topic I dealt with here, make a difference to themselves.

From taking part in a piece of ‘citizen science’ all the way to addressing a UN conference. From enthusing others to bravely confronting illegal activity. From simply enjoying and finding out about nature, all the way to writing a classic book such as Silent Spring.

From the small scale and personal to the global and history-making – everybody is on a level playing field in terms of the positive effect on themselves.



Recent Patch Sightings
12/10 - Redwing 1,500 , Fieldfare 120  - flying south during 2 hours
12/10 - Jack Snipe - 1 at the lake
20/10 - Brambling
Several Species of new fungi including Snowy waxcap
Leopard earthball, Scarlet brittlegill (Russula pseudointegra) Woolly Milkcap (Lactarius torminosus)


Wholly milkcap - quite a beautiful sight like someone has strewn peaches everywhere!

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Mushroom-man...it lives!!

His name is Guy and (predictably) he's a lot of fun. Guy was a science-whiz orphan who mistakenly ate a radioactive mushroom, which turned his body into fungus. Along with average strength, Fun Guy gained the ability to rot wood. He's probably not in the top eschelon of superheros, being neither a hero nor super. Click on the mushroom icons to see the species


Many thanks to Paul Sergeant for Oak Tongue, Eyelash and Horsehair Parachute photos.