Staff blog: Reindeer food and an old cure for rabies

Quinag conservation officer Romany Garnett finds out more about North-West Scotland’s internationally important collection of lichens

Quinag lichen experts 2015 detail

When climbing a mountain with spectacular views that stretch for miles, it is easy to focus on getting to the summit and to overlook what is going on around one’s feet.

On a fine Friday in October we took time to concentrate on the detail during a lichen foray on the south side of Quinag. Visiting lichenologist Dr Anthony Fletcher provided the expertise, local naturalist Ian Evans recorded the species identified, with habitats and grid references, and I marvelled at the diversity and attempted to remember some of the names.

Lichens are early colonizers of bare substrates, whether soil, rock, peat or wood, to which they cling with resilience and tenacity. They occur from below sea level, to the top of mountains. The vivid colours of their mosaic patterns can add to the joys of walking in late autumn.

Seen close-up, through a hand lens, the variety of form and texture is fascinating. Although they appear at first glance to be simple entities, they are in fact complex duel organisms, a mutually beneficial partnership between a fungus and an alga. The fungus obtains sugars from its algal partner and in turn protects it from extremes of weather; neither can survive without the other. 

We started out from a loop of the old road – one of a number alongside the main route to Lochinver – at a point where it crosses the course of a large burn, the Allt na Doire Cuilinn. It is an interesting part of the John Muir Trust property, since small boulder-strewn quarries, which once yielded hard core for the new road, now provide shelter from grazing animals for some uncommon plants, including a fine goat willow. Further up the hill, and just about distinguishable, is the line of an old drove road, along which cattle were moved two or more centuries ago.

Our progress was slow, since we were moving from boulder to outcrop, and taking a close look at them all. I soon found that walking with experts can be disconcerting; they tend to stop suddenly to look at a new find. I would turn around mid-sentence to find them crouched down, hand lens to eye.

Lichens vary greatly in form, from the rock-hugging crustose ones, through a range of leaflike (foliose) species, some of which, such as tree lungwort Lobaria pulmonaria, are huge, to the shrubby (fruticose) types which are either tufted or hang down like beards.

Lichen on Quinag 2

Among the fruticose ones we found were several species of the large genus Cladonia, some of which like the wetness of bogs that other lichens struggle with. Cladonia portentosa is a light grey or cream, very richly branched, ‘antler moss’. The reindeer and antler mosses are lichens, despite their name, since they do not have true roots that absorb water and nutrients.  In more extreme climates they are an important food source for reindeer and caribou. We also found Cladonia coccifera with attractive fruiting bodies shaped like flared goblets and rimmed in red, which looked almost extra-terrestrial.

Contrasting in form were dog lichens (Peltigera species), whose broad greyish lobes, in grass or on mossy stumps, were once used to treat rabies, owing to the fang-like appearance of the root-like rhizines on their underside, which just help to anchor them to their substrate. Different again were several kinds of rock tripe (Umbilicaria species), smoky grey or chocolate-brown in colour, which grow in clusters on boulders. Each individual is anchored to the rock by a single central holdfast. They have been used as survival food in the Arctic, but you would need to be desperate to eat them. 

Lichen on Quinag 

The peaty heathland between the boulders yielded a new higher plant for the area, not a lichen but alpine clubmoss, with grey-green scaly stems embedded in a carpet of woolly hair-moss, and bearing forked fruiting bodies. It is found in quantity higher up Quinag, usually at over 300m, and this site, at about 80m, is the lowest it has been found locally.

The turning point for our lichen foray was a lovely wooded crag on the old drove road, just above the upper reaches of the Allt na Doire Cuilinn. Since that name translates as the burn of the hazel copse, it was good to find at least one old hazel still hanging off the steep rock-face. In fact, we found nearly the full suite of native trees growing there, where deer cannot reach them. Beside hazel, there was aspen, holly, downy birch, rowan and eared willow, with trailing stems of honeysuckle and mats of ivy. 

Such a rich assemblage of woody plants is unusual anywhere in Assynt, let alone in such a small fragment of woodland. The largest of the trees, a sprawling aspen, bore a good selection of the lichens characteristic of such habitats in the North-Western Highlands, including the grey fans of Degelia atlantica. The ground flora on the steep slope below the crags had a number of flowering plants associated with somewhat base-rich soils, including fairy flax, wild thyme and wild strawberry and we also found a drooping head of the uncommon and well-named melancholy thistle, with its striking white-backed leaves.

Walking back towards the road I was surprised by the number of different kinds of lichens that we had found in a small area, well over 40 species in two and a half hours. Even without the expertise to put names to any but a few, I shall appreciate their rich patchwork of colours all the more in the future and enjoy tracing a finger over their subtle textures and spreading elegance.