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Welsh woodland as vulnerable as tropical rainforest?

Meirionnydd Oakwoods revealed to be more botanically significant than originally thought.

May 28 2015

© Dave Lamacraft/Plantlife

© Dave Lamacraft/Plantlife

The woodlands of the ancient kingdom of Meirionnydd in north west Wales, are as important as some tropical rainforests, Plantlife can reveal. The conservation charity has just finished an 18-month project, funded by Natural Resources Wales, to map the Meirionnydd Oakwoods and has discovered that it is more internationally significant than had been previously thought.

The Meirionnydd Oakwoods Important Plant Area is temperate rainforest; part of the Celtic Rainforest of Western Britain and Ireland. This habitat is rarer around the globe than tropical rainforest; beyond Britain and Ireland it is found mainly in the redwood forests of North America, the beech forests of southern Chile, in south-east Australia, New Zealand, China and Taiwan.

What makes it so important in Wales are the plants and fungi that grow there – internationally important populations of mosses, liverworts and lichens, the tiny plants and fungi that give woodland like this its luxurious green covering. Dave Lamacraft, Plantlife lower plants and fungi officer for Wales, and three other intrepid experts surveyed an area of woodland equivalent in size to 1,000 football pitches and made some important new discoveries:

  • A type of barnacle lichen never before recorded in Wales and found down a near inaccessible ravine
  • A species of felt lichen that was last seen in the 1800s
  • A species of tree flute, thought to be extinct in England and Wales

The barnacle lichen was a particularly exciting find, deep in a ravine. In 2005, lichenologist Neil Sanderson found the only Welsh colony of the blackberries-in-custard lichen growing on hazel on a barely accessible ledge. Neil says "Dave and I returned to this ledge for this project - I like to think he may be only the second human to reach it - and found more colonies of blackberries-in-custard lichen. We then made another remarkable discovery, the barnacle lichen Thelotrema petractoides, on a hazel stem, the first time this had been found in Wales". Dave adds, "It was uncanny, five minutes after talking about how good it would be to find it - we did just that!"

These Welsh woodlands are important because of their proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the effect that has on climate, the relatively clean air, and long history of woodland cover, but this project has confirmed just how important these woodlands are globally – and how vulnerable. There is less temperate rainforest in the world than tropical rainforest – and here in Wales threats such as a lack of grazing and invasive non-native plants such as Rhododendron overrunning the pristine habitat are a clear danger.

So what is Plantlife doing?

Plantlife is working closely with partners the RSPB, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the North Wales Wildlife Trust, Snowdonia National Park Authority and Natural Resources Wales. We are addressing these issues by reinstating cattle grazing, creating woodland glades, repairing boundaries and removing shade-casting shrubs.

  • As part of this work, nearly 30 owners and managers from these organisations as well as private landowners - have been trained or had advice from us on the importance of this landscape.
  • We are also planning a Rhododendron removal programme and have mapped the extent and density of the invasive rhododendron found here.
  • The project has also had a wider benefit - it has injected around £40,000 into the local economy by using local contractors and by contractors from further afield using local services.

"Whilst it is always exciting making new discoveries, the best bit for me", says Paul Rutter, project leader, "was the return of grazing to the woodland. Seeing Highland cattle grazing tree saplings might alarm some conservationists, but they’re doing exactly what’s needed – opening out the canopy so the lichens can thrive again".

Sam Bosanquet, moss and lichen ecologist from Natural Resources Wales says: “The discovery of these new species is a significant find, and highlights the importance of this area of woodland as a rich habitat, home to a diverse range of plants, lichens and mosses. Mosses soak up rain, prevent erosion and reduce soil run-off into rivers, and lichens take in nutrients from the atmosphere and help to feed the forest ecosystem. Insects that provide food for birds and other animals also thrive in these mossy areas. “The Plantlife surveys have increased the depth of information we have about this special area, and armed with this knowledge, we can make sure they are protected for the future and that sustainable development takes place in appropriate areas.”