Bryophytes from the Borders and beyond

The Liverwort 'Greasewort' found in the dune slacks on Holy Island
The Liverwort 'Greasewort' found in the dune slacks on Holy Island

Interest in mosses and liverworts in Berwickshire goes back a long, long way reported David Long at the November meeting of the SWT in Duns.

The first local records of mosses were made at Lamberton by George Johnston 1787-1855. He was followed by James Hardy 1815-1898 and J.B. Duncan 1869-1953, all of them all-round naturalists who published lists of the mosses they had found in Berwickshire. David’s father, Albert Long 1915-1999 also recorded all types of wildlife including mosses and this famous Berwickshire tradition has been continued and greatly expanded by David.

Bryology is the study and recording of mosses and liverworts. There are about 10,000 species of moss in the world with 752 found in the British Isles, and 8,000 species of liverwort with 292 found in Britain. Mosses and liverworts were the first green plants to colonise the land after the algae. They reproduce by dust like spores rather than seeds which flowering plants produce.

Bryophytes are very important in the environment as they are wonderful at water retention and can help reduce the risk of flooding by holding water back on the high moors and in woods. They are pioneers in stabilising and colonising barren ground and provide shelter and a home for a host of other wildlife. Sphagnum Moss makes peat which holds vast amounts of carbon, is used in many potting composts and as fuel and during the war Sphagnum was used as a dressing on wounds as it absorbs fluids and is mildly antiseptic.

Special places for mosses in the Borders were illustrated, such as the giant Earnsheugh cliffs between St Abbs and Fast Castle where Hardy recorded in 1868. Siccar Point, which is also famous for its geology, the dune slacks at Lindisfarne and the woodland at Gledswood by the Tweed. The basalt crags at Hume Castle are rich sites as is Dogden Moss where 15 species of Sphagnum have been recorded.

We were then transported to the high Cairngorms where students under David’s guidance are monitoring global warming, looking for long term changes in the vegetation around the late snow fields. We glimpsed some Atlantic Woodlands up our west coast which are exceptionally rich in species and students are busy recording and monitoring sites as there is a major threat from hydro-electric schemes. Out on the far flung St Kilda islands mosses from the Arctic and Canary Islands can be found growing in close proximity, and a liverwort found on Beinn Eighe required a lot of study before it was decided it was a species unique to Scotland. What had been thought to be the same species in Norway turned out to be a brand new species, now also recorded on the Shetland Islands.

There is a great deal of research continuing on the world’s Bryophytes and with David’s work Berwickshire remains at the forefront in this research.