A lot to ‘lichen’ about Torrisdale visit

A winter walk through the woods sprang up more than a few surprises last month when a key SKDT project took its staff and volunteers to East Kintyre.

Travelling to Torrisdale Estate, home of Niall and Emma Macalister-Hall, the couple opened their doors, and gave a tour of the grounds, to more than 20 people interested in experiencing, up close, the majesty of Kintyre’s temperate, or Atlantic, rainforest.

And while it may have been the early winter sun peering through gaps in the East Kintyre woodland stretch, the hardy band who turned out at Torrisdale – from enthusiastic volunteers from communities across the Kintyre peninsula and beyond, to long-serving SKDT employees and local arboreal experts – focused their gaze on some of the most unassuming but also most special and sacred natural life growing at ground level, and around the bases of trees throughout the route, including old oak, ash, rowan and hazel.

Dr Jennifer Lane Lee and Ed Tyler, left and right centre, inspect tree life in Torrisdale.

Ed Tyler, community growing specialist for SKDT, who works across both the trust’s Kintyre Climate Action and Kintyre Grows campaigns, was one of those who spoke to the group which assembled about lichens and mosses, two of the life forms growing in abundance and relying on Kintyre’s special mix of wet weather and clean air, amongst other factors for growth.

Also presenting was Dr Jennifer Lane Lee, who rounded of the walk by showing off an example of glue fungus (Hymenochaete corrugate) incredibly holding up detached twigs on the branch of a hazel tree.

Ed Tyler inspects moss on a bridge in Torrisdale Estate, December 2023. By John McCallum.

Ed explained: “I get such a buzz from showing folk the plants that characterise the rainforest.

“There is a massive surge of interest in the rainforest across the whole of Scotland, yet many of the folk who live in Kintyre didn’t know that it is, in fact, a rainforest area.

“They’re so excited when they find that it’s right in their back yard and that one day they might come across something rare and endangered.

“Lichens, mosses, liverworts, fungi and ferns are all spore-bearing and live together in communities that literally cover tree trunks, branches, drystane dykes and rocks and rock faces.

Emma Macalister-Hall of Torrisdale Estate takes a look at lichen growing on a tree.

“They love our wet humid climate, which scientists describe as ’oceanic’, the reason being of course that we are on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Some of the hundreds of species found in our rainforests are literally found nowhere else in the world.

“Together they form an amazing patchwork of different textures and colours – and the trees they grow on are often wizened and misshapen because of the often stormy conditions. Together with the fast-flowing burns and rocky outcrops, this gives a fairy-tale feel to our west coast rainforests.

All you need is a hand lens (x10 magnification is fine) and an introductory leaflet to head out there and go hunting for these ‘lower plants” – so-called because they are lower down in the Tree of Life, having appeared long before flowering plants.

“I recommend anything from Plantlife – they have downloadable leaflets that you can get off the internet.

“Also, I would would start off with one group, for example lichens, and learn a species a day – or a week! – otherwise it can get overwhelming!

Script lichen, which grows on hazel. By Eric Spence.

“My wife Carina and I have been protecting our own fragment of rainforest in Knapdale for nearly eight years. This has involved removing Rhododendron ponticum and putting up a deer fence to allow natural regeneration to take place.

“We are really noticing changes for the better.”

Work has been ongoing by the Torrisdale estate residents, also the distillers of Kintyre Gin, the Macalister-Halls set about last year in clearing the smothering invasive plant from sections of their land.

Ed added: “It is inspiring to see Niall and Emma clearing rhododendron from Torrisdale Estate and for caring for their many Champion Trees.

A shining example: ‘Champion’ oak in Torrisdale Estate.

“The lower plants were everywhere we looked.

“Niall and Emma looked after us so well, providing us with cake and a hot drink.

“Having 20 people looking together led to some great discoveries, including a red-fruiting slime mould and a leafy liverwort which I hadn’t spotted, but which (trust manager) Eric Spence had taken a picture of without realising!”