Plynlimon-Cladonia-diversa

Cladonia diversa

The uplands can appear somewhat bleak in midwinter to the untrained eye or the well-wrapped-up hiker pounding up a path to keep warm.  But this approach misses much of what is most special in these hills: the low-down, the small-scale and the microscopically-magnificent world of lichens.    Our day out with Cennae Cymru’s experts – and a supply of hand lenses for getting up close and personal – brought us nose to nose with a whole Scrutinising-lichen-post-plynlimonuniverse of these tiny fungus-alga symbionts colonising every rock and fence post.  Their scale even renders them unafraid to grow on the tarmac, since they don’t stand up high enough to be mown down by vehicle tyres.

Sphaerophorus-globosus-Plynlimon

Sphaerophorus globosus

Getting to differentiate them from each other is, like any form of botanising, a matter of paying close attention to incredibly small details.  But that needn’t stop the amateur from learning to appreciate them, and their often-overlooked importance to the ecosystems of the hillsides.  Molluscs graze them, and are in turn grazed by birds and mammals.

Blood-spot-lichen-Plynlimon

Blood-spot lichen

Caribou, famously, live on them though it is unlikely you’ll come across one doing so on Plynlimon.  Some can live for thousands of years, under incredible conditions of temperature, pressure or acidity.  Humans have in the past collected them both for food and for making dyes for clothing – a laborious exercise that well illustrates how much harder merely living day-to-day has been at different stages in human history.  But then again, if we continue to sail blithely past the small stuff that actually underpins the macro-scale world we inhabit, maybe it won’t be too long before people are grasping at lichens for food once again?

With thanks to Tracey Lovering and Steve Chambers for the identifications – we could not have done it without you.