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This autumn, help us find the Britain’s most colourful and important fungi – waxcaps.
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Plantlife have volunteering opportunities across the country, including working in our most unique habitats, like the Cairngorms Important Plant Area.
Discover the activities and work that our volunteers in the Cairngorms do with Sam Jones, Project Manager of the Rare Plants and Wild Connections Project.
The Cairngorms is characterised by two rare habitat types – the pinewoods and the high mountaintop plateau (habitat consistently above 650m). These are the main areas we work on, alongside upland species rich meadows and grassland fungi sites.
The Cairngorms is a beautiful and varied landscape, from rough river floodplains, giving way to woodlands, moorlands and mountains.
Above 1000m the flora becomes very different from what we are familiar with in the rest of the UK, with mosses, liverworts, hardy sedges and grasses, and dwarf woody plants no higher than your ankles clinging to rocks. It is closer to arctic communities than our lowlands.
We are lucky to have an amazing team of volunteers who support our work on rare pinewood flower species, as well as helping to identify and conserve species from meadows to mountaintops.
We focused on translocation of the pinewood species Twinflower Linnaea borealis cuttings between sites as we know remaining patches are declining due to lack of cross-pollination. Volunteers helped collect the cuttings, grew them on in their gardens, and helped plant them out at the new sites.
Our other pinewood species, One-flowered Wintergreen Moneses uniflora, is poorly understood, and most of our work has focused on learning about causes of their decline and what we can do about it.
In partnership with the James Hutton Institute, intrepid mountain climbing volunteers collected soil samples for eDNA analysis from Munro’s across the Cairngorms. This helped us discover more about the fungi that lie beneath the surface, doubling the total recorded mountaintop fungi for Scotland in one survey.
In the meadows, Pastures for Life helped establish a grazing trial of a new conservation grazing technique called mob grazing in Strathspey. Volunteers put in hundreds of hours surveying over 250 quadrats at our trial farms each year, so we can understand more about the impact of this technique on wild plants and fungi.
In June 2023, volunteers mobilised quickly for emergency watering of Twinflower cuttings. The weather in May was perfect and we started the first round of planting out, putting ~550 cuttings into the ground.
Immediately following this, June was startlingly dry and hot. We were panicking that our hard work would be wasted, with every cutting perishing in the unusually dry conditions. Freshly planted cuttings are especially susceptible to drought, as their roots haven’t yet established.
Volunteers spent the month of June collecting water from burns and hiking up hills and across rough terrain laden with bottles just to sprinkle it over our plots and repeat the process again a few days later. I am so grateful to those that helped, and comforted to know we gave our Twinflower cuttings the best chance we could.
Volunteers have always been key to this project and are involved in all sorts of activities with us here in the Cairngorms. They can be attending a training course one week, surveying meadows the following week, pulling out invasive Rhododendron, and even taking care of rare plants at home.
You don’t have to be a botanist to get involved with Plantlife. We’ve had help from school children, students, mountain climbers, and all sorts of folks who know very little about plants or nature.
All you need to volunteer with us is a passion to learn new things and a drive to get involved and help out.
Discover opportunities to volunteer near you….
A recent fungi fanatic, Plantlife’s Sarah Shuttleworth, has been exploring the wonderful world of fungi with her family.
Fancy a half-term adventure for the whole family, that gets the kids outside and interested in nature? Well, the answer is on your doorstep…fungi hunting.
Fungi are one of our most fascinating creations, and best of all, they are right under our noses – perfect for children to spot. You don’t even need to go to a nature reserve, the hunt for fungi can begin in your back garden or local greenspace.
With autumn well and truly here, I have found myself delving into the weird and wonderful world of fungi – very much aided by my children’s interest. The questions about what is this strange looking mushroom, what are these neon blobs, or gelatinous goo on the log – prompted my own interest in jolly-well finding out.
As it turns out, fungi are as diverse and complicated a group as one might expect. And it’s quite astonishing how brilliant children are at spotting them. (I suppose being that much closer to the ground and having 20:20 vision is probably a large amount to do with it!)
You can find fungi in so many places, here are just a few:
On our first trip out, we found more than 30 species in just one hour, ranging from the colourful circus like fungi, to the downright weird freak show of stinkhorns and slime moulds. We have been to woods in the Blackdowns, Dead woman’s ditch in the Quantocks and even round the corner at Thurlbear. All of these places gave us a range of fascinating finds, just by stepping off the path and looking around. Even if you don’t know the species, a few quick photos from different angles and a social media post, will soon increase your knowledge.
I think the children particularly like the sheer surprise element in fungi finding, you really don’t know what could turn up. Plus, the names are a delight – from The Sickener Russula Emetica, Green Elfcup Chlorociboria Aeruginascens, Amethyst Deceiver Laccaria Amethystina, Bearded Dapperling Cystolepiota Seminuda, Snapping Bonnet Mycena Vitilis, Yellow Brain Tremella Mesenterica and Turkey Tail Trametes Versicolor. Some of them ooze blood like droplets, turn bright blue when sliced, smell like honey or puff magic smokey spores when prodded! There are literally so many reasons for not only kids but the kids in us to be fascinated by this world of mycelial magic in the woods.
Here are some top tips for those first-time fungi hunters:
This Autumn, we’re also asking for your help to find Britain’s most colourful and important fungi – waxcaps. Click here to take part and find out more about our #WaxcapWatch– and you might even be able to help us find some important species-rich grassland in the process.
Every autumn one of the UK’s most colourful natural displays takes place: jewel-coloured waxcaps emerge through the grass across our countryside, cities and even some of our gardens. Let’s find them!
Watch Sarah Shuttleworth record her first waxcap find on the Waxcap Watch app.
A place of like-minded enthusiasts where you can share knowledge and photos of waxcaps and related species.
In the far north of Scotland lies Munsary Peatlands, Plantlife’s largest and wildest nature reserve.
At nearly 2000 hectares, it can seem vast, but it’s only a small part of the much larger Flow Country -an expanse of blanket bog which extends to 187,000 hectares across the north of Scotland.
It is this blanket bog, one of the UK’s most unique landscapes, which is being proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Munsary Peatlands forms an integral part of the proposed site, which is being put forward for inscription as the world’s first peatland World Heritage Site.
The Flow Country is the world’s the most intact and extensive blanket bog system in the world. As well as being hugely important for biodiversity, it is also an important carbon store, locking up around 400 million tonnes of carbon.
Plantlife manages Munsary, our nature reserve, for its peatland habitat and for its rare plants – including the threatened Marsh Saxifrage.
The proposed World Heritage Site is also an Important Plant Area, identified for its important habitat and rare species. Recognising the Flow Country by awarding it World Heritage Site status would further reinforce how important it is for nature and climate.
One of the species from at Munsary – Grass of Parnassus, image by Alistair Whyte
Munsary Peatlands Nature Reserve
Another species found at Munsary – the Round-leaved Sundew, image by Alistair Whyte
In August this year we were delighted to welcome assessors for UNESCO to the reserve, to highlight some of the important features of the Flow Country and to discuss its management.
The visit was part of a week-long tour of the Flow Country by assessors, who met with land managers, local communities and peatland experts as part of their assessment of the Flow Country bid – led by the Flow Country Partnership.
Here at Plantlife, we are strongly supporting the bid, and will continue to work hard to protect Munsary Peatlands as an important part of this unique landscape.
A decision on whether to award the Flow Country World Heritage Site status is expected next year – stay tuned!
Discover the activities and work that our volunteers in the Cairngorms do with Sam Jones of the Rare Plants and Wild Connections Project.
Learn about why our Munsary Peatlands reserve is being put forward for inscription as the world’s first peatland UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plantlife’s Artist in Residence, shares her summer journey across our reserves and some top tips for aspiring botanical artists.
Lisa Gardner, Plantlife’s Artist in Residence, shares her summer journey across some of our magical Plantlife reserves, the rare species she discovered and some top tips for aspiring botanical artists.
I always thought that I was someone who immersed themselves in nature. The entire ethos of my work is inspired by the natural world; it’s the seeds that allow my paintings to grow. However, my life-changing trip this summer exploring IPA sites across the UK has opened my eyes. It’s shown me what truly settling into stillness and absorbing the magic of nature really is.
As part of my Artist Residency for Plantlife – and supported by Arts Council England’s Developing your Creative Practice Fund – I set off on a wildflower treasure hunt back in May to uncover rare species; many of which are currently living on the edge.
I have always been fascinated by the juxtaposition of a wildflower, how its strength can rise through rubble and yet its fragility can break at the lightest of touches. A wildflower experiences birth, growth, transformation and decay, often in a thimble of time. It shows courage, hope, resilience, a contentment that is enviable.
Being amongst wildflowers I feel joy, strength, grief and an easeful glimmer of peace. With every wildflower season, I am able to experience this cycle of emotions. I am my raw, honest self, no hiding, nature welcomes you as you are, inviting you to be part of the purposeful chaos. My art helps me grow down through my layers and expand my roots.
My journey started at Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve in Kent. And what a start to the trip! I pulled up in the smallest of car parks where I was met by Ben, the site manager. He was excited to show me the incredibly rare Man Orchid: a handful of this endangered species had decided to make a verge on the side of a busy road their home.
If he hadn’t pointed them out, I would have walked straight past – but the moment you notice them, you cannot look away. Milky lime yellow with stripes of burgundy and tongues like snakes; they were utterly divine.
The juxtaposition of this rare, beautiful flower with the frantic hum of traffic continuously passing by felt like a metaphor for human nature. How much do we miss out on because we’re simply too busy?
My visit up to Scotland was the biggest part of my trip. The colours here were like a symphony; vibrant pops against a rugged landscape. Shades of storm grey into an icy blue, merging into crystalline greens. Soft lavender and silver ribbons. All these colours merged together against the textures of the flagstone rocks and the wildlife that burst from them.
And you had to work to find the rare species among this incredible palette! At one point, I had to lean right over a cliffside to spot the tiniest deep pink Scottish Primrose; it was so small and fragile – around 5cm tall – that you had to seriously tune your eye in to find it.
But I was so glad I made the effort. The Scottish Primrose can only be found in Orkney and the northern coast of Scotland. If it disappears from these sites, it’s gone forever. Our discovery, therefore, felt enormously poignant.
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Spring is an exciting time to be on our nature reserves. This is the season when the meadows really burst into life, with lush growth and seasonal flowers.
Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for a colourful type of fungi which prefer farmland to forests – waxcaps.
Waxcaps are types of mushrooms known for their shiny-looking caps. Together with other types of fascinatingly named fungi called pinkgills, earthtongues, club and coral fungi – they form a group called “grassland fungi”.
Waxcaps and grassland fungi come in a rainbow of different colours including vibrant violets, yellows, greens and pinks.
They also come in weird and wonderful shapes, which can help you to identify the species you’re looking at.
Chris Jones is the Warden at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve, one of our Dynamic Dunescapes sites, and has worked as a practical conservationist for over 25 years.
Kenfig is one of the largest sand dune systems in Wales and provides a unique habitat for a variety of rare and specialised species, including over 20 species of Waxcap fungi.
‘Waxcap fungi are commonly found in grasslands and meadows, and they are known for their ecological importance. They are often found in areas with short, grazed vegetation, but they can also occur in disturbed habitats, such as lawns and roadside verges.
Waxcaps are mostly found in the late summer and autumn, typically from September to November, depending on the local weather – but you can find them all year round.
The meadows where waxcaps are found are known as ‘waxcap grasslands’. These grasslands need specific conditions for waxcaps to thrive and are becoming rare.
On waxcap grasslands, waxcap fungi form partnerships with plants, where they exchange nutrients with the roots of host plants, benefiting both the fungi and the plants. This only happens in habitats with a high level of biodiversity, which the aims to identify.
Waxcap fungi are fascinating not only for their vibrant colours but also for their significance as indicators of healthy grasslands. Their conservation is important for maintaining biodiversity and preserving these unique and beautiful fungi for future generations to enjoy.
Many waxcap species are considered rare or threatened, primarily due to habitat loss and changes in land management practices such as tree planting and intensive agriculture. If you find any, please record them on the Waxcap Watch app.
I LOVE Waxcaps, they are AMAZING! It is ridiculously hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to choose it would be… all of them.’
This autumn, help Plantlife find Britain’s most colourful and important fungi – waxcaps.
Reverse the Red
We know there are some endangered animal species in the world, but did you know some of our plants are also threatened by extinction?
The good news is saving them is possible. Here are three plants species that are endangered in Scotland and the work that’s being done to bring them back from the brink of extinction.
The ultimate northerner in our flora, Scottish Primrose Primula scotica grows on coastal headlands on the north coast, including Dunnet Head, the northernmost tip of mainland – but is found nowhere else in the world. Low-growing and easily overlooked, this tiny flower which only grows a few centimetres tall – calls clifftops, mosaics of heath and machair, and rocky outcrops home.
The county flower of Caithness, Scottish Primrose can only reproduce through seeds and is known to flower twice a year, once in the early spring and again in the summer. It is easily distinguished from the common primrose by its blueish-purple petals.
Scottish Primroses greatest threat is inappropriate grazing, as it declined historically to cultural intensification. However, climate change poses just as great a challenge as it is a species that is sensitive to climate extremes.
Incidentally, species that are found in such a small area will inevitably be in danger of becoming endangered. Unfortunately, long term trends show a steep decline in Scottish Primrose populations – that’s why the Species on the Edge project has identified it as one of its key species. Our North Coast team is focused on working to grow current populations, ensuring that this beautiful rarity is not lost.
Every year in late summer, in a handful of scattered locations, constellations of one of our rarest flowers blink into life across the moors. Once much more widespread, Marsh Saxifrage Saxifraga hirculus in Scotland has now retreated to only six places, all of them remote, far-flung, and one of them on Plantlife’s Munsary Peatlands nature reserve in Caithness.
Favouring damp, nutrient-poor areas with good water flow, marsh saxifrage is an attractive plant with bright yellow flowers which appear through August and into mid-September. Where it does cling on, it can flower in great profusion, with over 1000 flowering shoots at Munsary in some years making this population the largest in Scotland.
Changes in land use, such as afforestation, over-grazing and the draining of moorland, have led to major losses of this beautiful plant. Its extinction in Austria, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, and its dramatic decline in Britain and across Europe, led to its protection under the European Union’s EC Habitats Directive.
Marsh Saxifrage can recover when conditions are right – the population at Munsary was only discovered in 2002. Plantlife has been involved in its conservation for a number of years, and it seems that this appearance was in response to a drop in grazing levels, with the plant having been hanging on undetected for many years.
Growing almost exclusively in the native Caledonian pine forests of Scotland, Twinflower has suffered as these magnificent forests have been lost. Reduced to a handful of fragments, the pine forests are a shadow of their former selves, and are isolated from each other, scattered as small islands of woodland through the Highland landscape.
This loss of the forests means the loss of the Twinflower. Its populations have become so fragmented and isolated from each other that the distances are too great for its pollinators, which it relies on to produce viable seed. As a result, the remaining populations have become vulnerable to extinctions, with none of the genetic resilience that pollination can bring.
This genetic isolation makes the remaining plants susceptible to disease and changing environmental conditions. In the long-term, if it can’t reproduce, the species will be lost from Scotland.
Plantlife is working on the Cairngorms Rare Plants and Wild Connections project with partners to restore the forests and help the Twinflower re-establish itself. To achieve this, we are undertaking translocations of genetically different patches of the flower to areas near to each other to allow pollination to occur. This is being done with the help of volunteers and in partnership with landowners across the national park.
Our species are the fundamental parts of biodiversity – the more species there are in a habitat, the more diverse that habitat is. It is this diversity that allows ecosystems to function healthily and be more resilient.
This means, when we lose species to extinction, it undermines our ecosystem’s ability to adapt and respond to climate change and other existential threats. This is the primary reason why recovering species is one of our priorities at Plantlife. With partners, Plantlife plan to recover 100 plant species, and move them out of high extinction risk categories, into lower risk categories.
We are proud supporters of the global Reverse the Red campaign – a movement dedicated to spotlighting all of the work that’s being done to try and stop extinctions and prevent further species decline.
Tune in across the month to find out more about the species that we and our partners are working on to Reverse the Red and fight back against extinction.
Discover how you can identify the mosses where you live, and read about Lizzie's challenge to learn 10 mosses!
Grasslands like meadows and parks are not just home to wildflowers, they are also an important habitat for waxcap fungi.
Ever wondered why we need to go out and count rare plants? Meg Griffiths reflects on a summer of lichen hunting for the Natur am Byth! Project.
Plantlife’s Cairngorms Project Manager Sam Jones reveals how a tiny flower in Scotland is fighting back against extinction in the UK, and what we’ve learnt about this mysterious wee plant.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading what little information there is on One-flowered Wintergreen, Moneses uniflora, during site visits, and chatting with other experts. I’ve been trying to figure out what has caused its sharp decline in abundance and distribution globally, and how we can help prevent it here in Scotland.
The uncomfortable answer I’ve come to is that we still don’t really know all that well. Around 10% of the Scottish population is in the Cairngorms, the rest distributed sparsely across the Highlands. In the last 50 years, I estimate that we’ve lost half of our populations, and of those remaining, only a few are stable or improving. We may soon lose all One-flowered Wintergreen in the UK without intervention.
One-flowered Wintergreen is the only member of its genus Moneses, closely related to Pyrola, a group containing the other wintergreens, such as Intermediate Wintergreen (Pyrola media). Sadly, all are rare and in decline.
True wintergreens are partial-mycoheterotrophs, which means that they have an alternative to photosynthesis for acquiring their energy to grow. They can parasitically take sugars and other minerals from fungus in woodland soils.
This ability to uptake energy from the soil as a supplement to their photosynthesis is likely part of why they are so challenging to understand and to propagate in captivity. There have also been suggestions that the presence of specific fungi is necessary for the tiny powder like seeds to germinate.
One-flowered Wintergreen does not seem to have an easily definable niche. It is very rare, only occurring at specific sites, and often isolated to an area a few tens of metres across in a large and apparently suitable woodland.
Recently, we have had some breakthroughs helping us to understand this plant better. Trials of cattle grazing in woodland have yielded rapid recovery in a One-flowered Wintergreen population. Another site was heavily trampled and disturbed in the process of Rhododendron removal, again yielding rapid recovery of Wintergreen. These plants all seem to recover on sites where bare ground, trampled wood, and organic material are present.
On forestry sites, One-flowered Wintergreen appears to grow only along forestry tracks and where the ground has been historically disturbed. A picture is starting to emerge of this species favouring periodic heavy disturbance of woodland soils.
Armed with this information we are providing advice to current land managers. We are also investigating options for a small-scale trial translocation of One-flowered Wintergreen, as much to aid in our learning of the needs of this rare flower, as to aid the genetic resilience of a small and struggling population.
Thousands of years ago, before significant human alteration to the landscape of Britain, perhaps One-flowered Wintergreen existed in a particular niche. It may have relied on the bare ground made by a wild boar digging for roots in the woodland, or the wood pulp made by a beaver chopping a tree, or the trampled ground under the hoof a mighty Auroch.
In the modern world humans create this niche for them more than animals, and sadly, our modern management of pine woods has favoured it less. Through research and collaboration, we will be able to manage woodlands holistically, providing a mosaic of habitat for One-flowered Wintergreen in Scottish pinewoods, as well as other rare native species.
If you’re looking for a wilder summer holiday for you and your family, here’s some inspiration for natural beauty spots around the UK where you can discover the breathtaking nature on our doorsteps.
Nature reserves aren’t just a thriving space for biodiversity, they’re a place to explore, an area which is scientifically proven to improve our well-being, and a magical experience to make memories.
Here are 5 ideas for you to add to your summer staycation mood board. Pack your picnic blanket and sensible shoes – it’s time to get out and explore!
Discover a purple sea of Devil’s-bit Scabious at this mountain hay meadow in late summer on the edge of the Pennines. For the more adventurous among you, why not follow the steep path where you can discover an old lead smelt mill that dates from 1843?
Star summer species to look out for: Globeflower Trollius europaeus, Fragrant Orchid Gymnadenia conopsea (June), Greater Butterly-orchid Platanthera chlorantha (June) and Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis (August)
Location: near Brough, Cumbria (OS: NY 816146, ///tinkle.resist.dictation)
If you’re looking for a rainbow of wildflower colour to be the backdrop to this years staycation, this is the spot for you. Look out for delicate Mountain Pansy on our walking route, which passes through spectacular limestone scenery with an exceptional wealth of ﬂowers. Along the way is the picturesque village of Sheldon which is a good lunch stop, before discovering ancient woodlands to explore.
Star summer species to look out for: Mountain pansy Viola lutea (May-July) and Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia palustris (July-Oct)
Location: Sheldon, Derbyshire. (OS: SK 165 698, ///announced.hangs.paradise)
Follow our walking route here.
In English, Caeau Tan y Bwlch means ‘the fields below the mountain pass’, and you’ll get spectacular views of the Eryri National Park which won’t disappoint. The reserve is a nature lovers paradise, with an array of different habitats, from meadows to bogs, which are home to Butterfly Orchids and other rare plants. Perfect for anyone looking for a wild weekend in north Wales!
Star summer species to look out for: Greater Butterfly-orchid Platanthera chlorantha (Jun-Jul), Intermediate Lady’s Mantle Alchemilla xanthochlora (Jun-Sept)
Location: Capel Uchaf, near Clynnog Fawr, Gwynedd (OS: SH 431488, ///lotteries.dusted.birthdays)
During the summer Greena Moor is a hot spot for butterflies such as the Marsh Fritillary, which are drawn by the purple pom-poms of Devil’s-bit Scabious on the reserve. As well as being one of the best remaining examples of the rare Culm grassland habitat, this idyllic reserve is perfect for a tranquil wander due to its isolated location just off the Cornish coast.
Star summer species to look out for: Meadow Thistle Cirsium dissectum (June-Aug) and Whorled Caraway Carum verticillatum (July-Aug)
Location: Week St. Mary, Cornwall (OS: SX 234963, ///wobbles.cats.digs)
Follow our wildflower walk.
Seaton Meadows is steeped in history dating back to medieval times, and the perfect spot for an afternoon walk alongside the dramatic purple spikes of Great Burnet, framed by the arches of the impressive Welland Railway Viaduct. Throughout the summer you can step back in time and watch as the meadow is managed in traditional methods that haven’t changed in centuries.
Star summer species to look out for: Great Burnet Sanguisorba officinalis (June-July) and Common Meadow-rue Thalictrum flavum (July)
Location: Near Harringworth, Rutland (OS: SP 913979, ///shun.theme.retailing)
Did you know we had rainforest in the UK? Barnluasgan is where lochside meets these rare and wild temperate rainforests. Look out for lichens, mosses and liverworts; tiny plants that make Scotland’s rainforest internationally important. But be careful, don’t stray too far off the path, as Ghillie dhu, forest sprites restricted to the west coast forests of Scotland, protect these ancient woodlands fiercely!
Star summer species to look out for: Honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum (June-Septemer) and Tree Lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria
Location: Lochgilphead PA31 8PF
Follow our walk which takes you through these magical rainforests.
When visiting nature reserves and other green spaces, don’t forget to follow the countryside code to protect these special places.
Air pollution often poses the biggest danger to internationally rare habitats.
68% of our most sensitive habitats are impacted by excess nitrogen, like the temperate rainforests found along the west coast of Britain.
Full of wonder and mossy goodness these beauties really capture the imagination and lift the spirits of anyone who visits. This unique habitat thrives in areas where there is a high annual rainfall with relatively constant temperatures.
However, temperate rainforests are more than just woodlands; they are a mosaic of trees, open glades, crags, ravines, rocks and gorges. With surfaces absolutely chock full of liches, mosses, liverworts and an array of fungi – they support an important array of wildlife, absorb carbon and slow the flow of floodwaters.
Nitrogen gases in air pollution have the potential to destroy these beautiful places. This pollution can take the form of ammonia emissions from farm manures and fertilisers, or nitrogen oxide emissions from fossil fuels.
Even rainforest areas far from the source of pollution, such as the northwest coast of Scotland, are affected by air pollution as it can travel long distances in the atmosphere.
Trees within the rainforest will temporarily show increased growth from extra nitrogen. However, in the long term any growth will soon stagnate as the earth becomes saturated with excess nitrogen – more than 94% of woodlands are affected by air pollution UK wide.
Higher nitrogen levels mean trees will often suffer from discoloration and increased vulnerability to drought, frost, and disease like acute oak decline.
Woodland fungi are no exception to impacts of air pollution, as many are closely associated with tree roots and health.
Their loss will result in a further decline of tree species, leading to increasing carbon emissions and further contributing to the ongoing climate crisis.
A change in flora is sure to follow an increase in air pollution as tougher nitrogen-tolerant plants, such as nettles and brambles, will outcompete the more sensitive and specialist species within the rainforest. This has a cascading effect on other wildlife which rely on certain wild plants for food, shelter, and reproduction.
Losing species which make up a significant part of the rainforest ground cover, such as mosses and liverworts like Greater Whipwort, reduces the ecosystem’s ability to retain water. This makes the whole area more vulnerable to droughts and floods.
As an essential part of temperate rainforests, lichens require low levels of air pollution to thrive. Lichens provide food, shelter and microhabitats for invertebrates, in addition to contributing to carbon cycling and water retention. Some rare lichen species are only found in rainforest areas and are being pushed to the brink of extinction.
Without lichens, our temperate rainforests would struggle even more to survive. Many are incredibly sensitive to changes in air quality, such as tree lungwort (Lobaria spp) and will quickly be lost to increased levels of nitrogen in the atmosphere.
Tree Lungwort in particular is an amazing indicator species, as its presence signals that the forest is healthy and functioning as it should. This is because it is a slow growing species that is even more sensitive to air pollution than most other lichens.
Tree Lungwort often can become outcompeted and swamped in nitrogen-tolerant algae, knocking the ecosystem out of balance. When we see populations of lungwort recovering, we know that our air quality is improving and with that, the rainforest.
Hope is not lost! For one, you are reading this and arming yourself with information to pass onto your family and friends. When you take action on air pollution, you’re benefiting wildlife as well as people’s health.
You can also support Plantlife’s work to inspire further action to reduce air pollution and tackle its impacts on our natural environment.
Our Global Advocacy Coordinator, Claire Rumsey, will be at COP28 to speak up for the vital role of wild plants and fungi in the fight against climate change.
Alistair Whyte, Head of Plantlife Scotland shares his thoughts on Scotland’s relict plant, Purple Oxytropis
“Sloping rocky banks and red sandstone cliffs. Extinct.” This is the brief and rather depressing entry for Purple Oxytropis Oxytropis halleri in my old Flora of Angus book (Ingram and Noltie, 1981).
The plant has been gone from Angus for a long time, as it has from North Queensferry and several other locations in Scotland. It’s one of our rarest wildflowers.
Purple oxytropis is an impressive plant – a member of the Fabaceae (legume) family, with purple flowers, silky leaves and growing in sometimes large colonies in the few places where it does still exist. In the UK, the species is only found in Scotland. Elsewhere, it’s only found in the high mountains of central Europe.
Its Scottish distribution is described as ‘relict’. Most of its remaining populations are coastal, with its stronghold on the north mainland coast. There are a very few populations on the north-east coast, and one extremely isolated population away down on the Mull of Galloway, in the south-west. It’s also found near the summits of three Scottish mountains, two in Perthshire and one in Argyll.
It’s likely that it was never a very common plant, and this country is very much on the northern edge of its range. But there’s no doubt that it was more widely distributed in the past than it is today. Some populations have been lost due to development destroying its habitat. The species is vulnerable to over-grazing– it’s tasty to grazing animals (of which we have an increasing number in Scotland). It also likes open conditions, so won’t thrive in areas that get too encroached with scrub or trees.
Purple oxytropis is dependent on pollinators, mainly bees, to successfully reproduce. Anything impacting on these pollinators will in turn impact on the ability of purple oxytropis to survive.
Its remaining isolated coastal populations are also extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rising sea levels could be catastrophic, and associated erosion could spell disaster. The species isn’t widely distributed enough to withstand local impacts like this. A recent study carried out for Plantlife concluded that it is probable that the Mull of Galloway population will become extinct if no new plants appear and highlighted the threat that a single event such as a landslip could have on the fragile population there.
The isolated nature of the remaining populations means that the plants are likely to exhibit low genetic diversity and high levels of inbreeding, which will weaken them and make their future survival less likely. However, We don’t know enough about the genetics of the species to be sure.
How much should we care about trying to save a species which is already on the edge of its range? Surely, it’s doing okay in the Alps? The problem with that argument is simply, where do you draw the line? If we lose it from Scotland, does the next closest population become the ‘edge of range’ one which it’s OK to lose? And then the next?
If we want to live in a country that’s rich in wildlife, we must look after the species that make their home here. The problems facing Purple Oxytropis are difficult but not insurmountable. And by tackling the problems facing this species, we will also address these problems for a host of other species which are facing similar threats.
Looking at a map of Purple Oxytropis distribution over time is like watching a series of lights blinking out one by one. I don’t think anyone wants the map to go completely dark. It’s up to us to keep as many lights on as possible.
Plantlife is taking action for Purple Oxytropis through Species on the Edge partnership.