A corner of County Kerry in a Kentish Cave

Saturday saw me attending another excellent field trip run by the South-East group of the British Bryological Society. This time we were headed to a private site just inside Kent called Hungershall Rocks. The sandstone at Hungershall Rocks is part of a large number of these outcrops stretching across the Weald from Tunbridge Wells to Ardingly and all along the ridge there are sites with a wealth of rare bryological flora.

Hungershall Rocks is a private site just outside Tunbridge Wells near High Rocks which we were lucky to get access to. Plenty of excellent bryologists have visited the site in the past and the records stretch back over more than 150 years. It has been interesting to see how the bryological flora of the site has developed over such a long time, with new species being discovered but equally species that were here in the past being lost from the site.

The rocks themselves are mainly under tree cover, however some are more exposed. Some patches are dripping wet due to the clay within the rocks and others bone dry. There are a plethora of nooks, crannies, ledges and some caves too. This wide range of rock features leads to a very diverse set of mosses and liverworts that can be found on these rocks.

It wasn’t only mosses and liverworts that were in abundance either. There were many different vascular plant species inhabiting the rocks, especially ferns. One of the best finds of the day was this beautiful, eye-catching and impressive-looking plant:


It’s stunning, isn’t it?

It wasn’t too easy to get to. It was growing on the wall of a small cave, where very little sunlight penetrated. There was only really room for one person inside the cave and that person had to be in a crouched, uncomfortable position. So why was this rather underwhelming (to be honest) plant worth such an effort to get to?

It is Trichomanes speciosum, the Killarney Fern. Killarney is a small town in Ireland’s County Kerry, the county where half of Ireland’s known populations of this fern are found. As you can see from the map below, this species has a predominantly Western distribution in the UK and is quite unusual in the East, being recorded in only a handful of sites in the South-East:

Killarney Fern

NBN Gateway map for Trichomanes speciosum

You might be thinking that it doesn’t look like a normal fern usually does and you’d be forgiven for thinking so because this is not the most commonly seen fern life-stage. The life-cycles of ferns are very complex and unusual and this is a seldom noticed part of it.

The green felty stuff that you can see in the image are the rhizoids of the gametophyte (also known as the prothallus), the gametophyte being the life-stage before the recognisable adult sporophytes that we most commonly come across; the rhizoids being filaments attached to the gametophyte which conduct water.

On the undersides of the fronds of adult ferns there are small, usually brown, sporangia which contain spores. These spores are released and when a suitable site is found, they grow into a gametophyte like the one shown in the image. The word gametophyte comes from the word gamete – the male and female reproductive cells (the ova and the sperm cells) that they produce.

The gametophyte features an archegonium and an antheridium. The archegonium is the female reproductive organ, which contains a single ovum. The antheridium is the male reproductive organ, which releases lots of sperm. The sperm swims through a thin film of moisture and into a nearby archegonium where the ovum is waiting to be fertilised.

Once the ovum has been fertilised, it becomes a zygote and later an embryo. The embryonic fern relies on the prothallus (gametophyte) from which it grows for its water and nutrients. Soon the embryonic plant grows into a sporophyte (the large leafy plant we most regularly recognise as a fern) and the prothallus dies.

That is fern reproduction explained as simply as I could (I can only just understand some of it myself) and there is a lot more to it. This link explains fern reproduction in much more detail, however as a warning there is certainly a lot of scientific jargon used: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~joyellen/fernreproduction.html

The following diagram is a representation of the fern life cycle, from the same website:


So, that felty green stuff on the wall of a cave might not look like much. However clearly there is a lot of interesting information and a very complex life-cycle behind it.

Tricky Zygodons! Or are they?

Last Sunday I was able to attend a field trip of the South-East branch of the British Bryological Society, to Duddleswell Valley nestled in the expanse of Ashdown Forest. The key site in this valley is a wooded ghyll, which has been a very popular location for bryologists since at least when the brilliant botanist Francis Rose visited in the mid-1950s.

Once we had waded our way through no less than eight different species of Sphagnum mosses we arrived at this famous ghyll and what greeted us was a steep and slippery slope down to the stream below us. Luckily we all made it down safely and we were able to begin!

We worked our way slowly down the ghyll, finding extreme rarities such as Campylostelium saxicola; admiring huge walls of fruiting Pellia epiphylla and finding ourselves knee-deep in shallow-looking mud. I even managed to put my foot in the middle of the largest colony of Nardia compressa in South-East England!


A large part of the only colony of Nardia compressa in the South-East


Nardia compressa


Campylostelium saxicola

Near the end of our excellent and bryophyte-rich walk we came across a good stand of willow trees with many species that we hadn’t yet encountered that day. These species included a small, inconspicuous tuft of moss, a Zygodon species. There are four regularly occurring Zygodon species in the South-East and they are hard to separate in the field. To be certain of an identification to species level you really need to get out the microscope.

Therefore I took a small part of the moss back with me to work on. I was expecting it to be a tricky task that might take me a while to perfect. What surprised me was that it was quite the opposite!

The features to look at are the gemmae. The gemmae of Zygodons are single cells that detach from the moss in order to reproduce asexually, meaning that the fusion of male and female sex-cells (gametes) is not necessary. When mosses and other organisms reproduce asexually like this it is referred to as fragmentation.

Not knowing how to get the gemmae off the moss and onto the microscope slide to examine, I first tried taking a small stem of the moss and seeing if I could spot any gemmae around it. This was unsuccessful and so for my second attempt I simply tapped the clump of moss onto the slide, added a drop of water and a cover slip. I placed this slide under the microscope and I could immediately see several gemmae under 100x and 400x magnification. That was much easier than I had expected!

Next came the actual identification of the Zygodon. The very helpful Brad Scott had narrowed my moss down to two species, Z. conoideus and Z. viridissimus. He also supplied photos of the gemmae of both conoideus and viridissimus, so all I needed to do was compare the gemmae of my moss with Brad’s excellent photos. It was clear: my moss was definitely Zygodon conoideus!

This experience has certainly shown me that not everything that needs microscopic examination is difficult. Certainly some species require very fiddly work to separate but that is not always the case.


My photo of a gemma of Zygodon conoideus

2000 and beyond!

As many of you know, I have been keeping a pan-species list for a year and a half. A pan-species list (or PSL) is a list of all species that you have seen within either the UK or Britain and Ireland. My main target, that I set in the new year, was to get to 2000 species by year-end, which was always going to be a big challenge for me. I started the year on around 1300 species and retrospectively I am very pleased at the number of species I added during the course of the year.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was on the home straight. I needed just 29 species for me to reach the magical number however I was in the last, and generally toughest month due to the lack of many invertebrates. However, I had a field trip planned which would hopefully get me all the way.

On a cold Sunday morning I met several other bryologists (bryology is the study of bryophytes – mosses and liverworts)/naturalists in a car park in the Lewes district of Sussex. We were at Chailey Commons for a meeting of the South East group of the British Bryological Society.

Our first stop on our outing was the short acidic grassland immediately next to the car park. There were a few common grassland species here, including the very familiar Rhytidiadelphus squarrosusor Springy Turf-moss. This species is not only confined to acidic grassland like this but can also be found almost anywhere with short grass. For example it out-competes the grass in our lawn in some places! Once you have seen this species regularly it becomes quite distinctive, it is medium to large sized (for a moss!) with a red stem. It has very short, thin leaves on the stem as well as slightly larger pointed leaves on the short branches and at the apex.


Springy Turf-moss (Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus)

Another species found in this short grassland was Kindbergia praelonga, or Common Feather-moss. This is another largish moss which, as its name suggests, resembles a feather. Unlike Rhytidiadelphus squarrosus is completely green, including the stem. It has opposite branches with leaves similar in size to those on the green stem. The branches become shorter, like the tip of a feather.


What I believe to be a frond of Kindbergia praelonga

After examining the grassland, we moved to a small patch of woodland around a quite large but seasonal pond. This pond is one of the few sites outside of the New Forest for Fairy Shrimps, however I needed to have been visiting in summer for a chance to see one of these rare crustaceans.

In this small wood we found a number of common woodland species, including our first liverworts of the outing. The first liverwort I came across was the small but abundant Metzgeria furcata, also known as the Forked Veilwort. This liverwort is very thin and forms small patches on tree trunks with the thalli (the leaves) adpressed to the substrate. It is the most common thallose liverwort and away from the coast, the most frequently encountered Metzgeria species. It also occasionally grows on rocks, although more frequently in the west of Britain where it is generally damper.

Along with that species of Metzgeria we also came across another species of the same genus: Metzgeria fruticulosa, or Bluish Veilwort. This is much less common than M. furcata, and a new species for me. This species is separated from furcata by the gemmae, which is “a small cellular body or bud that can separate to form a new organism”. Metzgeria furcata only produces gemmae rarely in Britain however fruticulosa is almost always gemmiferous, with gemmae located at the tip of the thalli.

We also encountered several patches of the moss Fissidens taxifolius (Common Pocket-moss) on the soil on the steep bank leading down to the pond. The genus Fissidens is a tricky genus for beginners as specimens often need close examination, either in the field with a hand lens or with a microscope. Luckily I was with lots of people much more knowledgeable than myself, so the specimens we found were quickly identified as this species.


A species of Fissidens from the Cotswolds last year

After recording everything that could be found in that small patch of woodland we headed to a habitat I have never explored before: a WW1 trench! There were a number of very interesting bryophyte species in this trench that was used for training in the Great War, including one of the least common bryophytes of the meeting: Aulacomnium androgynumThe common name of this species is Drumsticks, named after the very distinctive reproductive feature, which comprises of a long stalk with a ball of gemmae at the vertex.

A variety of different mosses and liverworts were not the only new species I found in the wartime trench. There were also a range of ferns growing on the muddy bank and luckily a member of the Sussex Botanical Recording Society, Helen Proctor, was on hand to help me identify a few. Most were common species that I had recorded before, however one was a common species that I hadn’t recorded before! This was the Broad Buckler-Fern, Dryopteris dilatata. Distinguishing this species confidently from other species is possible by looking at the brown, papery scales on the stem. If these scales have a dark centre, then they belong to the Broad Buckler-Fern.

After a thorough exploration of the trenches, we moved on to an area of damp heath. Here there were Sphagnums aplenty! Sphagnums are large mosses which love damp, boggy habitats on the edges of streams and other water bodies as well as in bogs and marshes. The genus is quite easy to identify from other mosses due to its size and elongated, upright shape with a thick capitulum, which is a compact head containing new branches. However, identifying Sphagnums to species level is much trickier! For a confident identification one will need good literature, such as the key in the British Bryological Society’s Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: a field guide. Fortunately there was also a Sphagnum expert with us who was able to verify what we found. I was quite pleased at the number of Sphagnum species we recorded on the outing: compactum, fallax, capillifolium, papillosum, palustre and fimbriatum. However, this is only a small fraction of the species of Sphagnum in the UK!

While we were examining the Sphagnum one of the members of the field outing flushed a medium-sized, stocky bird from the leaf litter. It flew high in the direction of the road. I stared at it as it flew off with my mouth agape for a fraction of a second, before I exclaimed: Woodcock! These plump wading birds are related to the Snipes, however they are unusual in that they are nocturnal; they often feed away from water (on moist pastures for example) and they roost in woodlands. Woodcock was one of my bogey birds: species that I really should have seen but hadn’t. I have traipsed through many woods in my local area hoping to disturb one from its daytime rest, which is by far the easiest and most common way to spot a Woodcock, without any luck. Therefore I was exceedingly pleased to have finally come across one.

Soon after we flushed the Woodcock, it was time for me to head off. When I arrived back home I counted up the number of new species I had found and I was pleased that I had just made it to 2000, with Woodcock being species number 2000! Now it is time to think of a new target to keep me motivated to find more interesting wildlife. My next PSL target is to reach 3000 species by my 15th birthday in August 2018.












































































































































Searching for Sandstone Bryophytes: Part 2

I recently visited Eridge Rocks to look for some more sandstone Bryophytes. Eridge Rocks is a superb site with a line of sandstone cliffs running through the 43 hectare woodland towards the nearby nature reserve Broadwater Warren. The cliffs are very tall and I have never explored a habitat quite like it before. It is known for its incredibly diverse community of lower plants (ferns, mosses, liverworts, lichens etc.)

When I arrived I immediately found a new species to me in the form of a nondescript Bramble in the car park. I took photos so that I could identify it at home and it turned out to be Rubus scaber. New species #1 and my 7th Bramble species ever identified (I recently found a lot along our private road). All Brambles might look similar, but they are subtly different in the spine structure, stem hairiness, stem shape, leaf shape and flower shape.


Unlike Loder Valley, you don’t have to walk far to reach the site. You can see the rocks before you even reach the car park! The first thing I saw when I got to the rocks wasn’t a Bryophyte but in fact a species of Bamboo! It was a bit out of place, but again I took some photos for it to be identified back home. Several different webpages on Eridge Rocks say that Bamboo is found here, but I’m not sure why. There are only two or three healthy shoots and several scraggly ones. After a bit of internet searching I think they are Pseudosasa japonica. If anyone has any other ideas, please comment.


I quickly moved on to the Bryophytes on the first rock. The variety really amazed me, I wasn’t familiar with most of the Bryophytes except for the few that I had found a few days earlier at Loder Valley. I quickly got my eye in however, my marked pages once again proving useful. By the end of the walk I saw nearly all of the Bryophytes whose pages I had marked. I was following in the footsteps of the British Bryological Society South-East group, who visited the site 13 months ago. Therefore my account is rather similar to the meeting report compiled by Brad Scott: https://diversionsinnaturalhistory.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/eridge-rocks-east-sussex-vc-14/

On the first rock, I immediately saw Dicranum scottianum, Calypogeia integristipula, Odontoschisma denudatum and Barbilophozia attenuata in one cramped patch. They were all out in the open apart from Odontoschisma denudatum which was annoyingly only to be seen in a small crag on the rock face at that particular section. Dicranum scottianum dominated, with Calypogeia integristipula second in command and spreading out from beneath the tufts of Dicranum scottianumBarbilophozia attenuata was only found in certain small patches but more cooperative than the seemingly shy Odontoschisma denudatum. 

Around the other side of the rock (I should mention that the rocks are ten to twenty metres high and up to thirty metres wide) there was a similar patch. There was an old rotting stump leaning against the rock face near that patch and that was dominated by Barbilophozia attenuata. 

The rest of the rocks had communities very similar to that of the first rock, but different micro-climates offered a slightly different array of species. In the darker areas like small caves or heavily shaded sections, the Cephalozia species (C. connivens and C. bicuspidata) were most prominent whereas in the slightly wetter areas Tetraphis pellucida was more dominant.

It wasn’t just the Bryophytes that were interesting though. I was able to find two very interesting lichens that were mentioned in the meeting report above: Cladonia incrassata and Bunodophoron melanocarpum. Cladonia incrassata was the most common one, with the thalli present on nearly every rock. The fruits were less abundant, but where they were present they were very pretty. Bunodophoron melanocarpum I only found one patch of, but it is my favourite lichen I’ve seen so far. It seems very exotic, a lichen I would’ve expected to see in Western Scotland or Cumbria. As said in the meeting report though, it is quite notable in the South-East.

When I got home I was able to count how many new species I had seen. I was very pleased with a total of 16 species, 12 Bryophytes, 2 lichens and 2 vascular plants.

My family and I haven’t explored a habitat quite like Eridge Rocks before. We even saw Homer Simpson (see below).


Homer, as bald as ever…

Searching for Sandstone Bryophytes: Part 1

Today we visited Loder Valley Nature Reserve near Wakehurst Place. It is special not only for its excellent Hazel coppice (great for Dormice) and sandstone outcrops but because it only allows 50 people in per day; but we may have been the only people to brave the mud. This was good because the birds on the Ardingly Reservoir were very anxious and agitated.

I had marked some of the species of moss and liverwort found on sandstone in the South-East in my field guide (Mosses and Liverworts of Britain and Ireland: a Field Guide), which has its first birthday in 8 days. There weren’t many, so that made identification relatively easy. That’s crucial when it is unseasonably hot, you are carrying lots and you forgot to bring a water bottle! Not to mention the field guide weighs a tonne!

To get to the reserve, we had to go through Wakehurst Place. Wakehurst is a garden run by Kew and there are a variety of habitats. There are even a few sandstone outcrops. We passed one on the way to the reserve and we could see quite a lot of species even though it was quite crumbly. As well as the Bank Haircap (Polytrichastrum formosum) and the Swan’s-neck Thyme-moss (Mnium hornum) that can be found pretty much everywhere, I found two new species for me: Pellucid Four-tooth Moss (Tetraphis pellucida) and Stipular Flapwort (Harpanthus scutatus). Also on that outcrop was a Garlic Snail, which I wasn’t expecting. Not a new species but it was stunning with the blue on the ‘head and neck’ being very clear.


A little further along, we came to a stand of Yews. For a while I’ve been looking for a species of midge: Taxomyia taxi. This might seem a little off-topic, but they create galls on Yew to raise their young in safety. And believe it or not, one tree was covered in the galls! New species #3!


We still hadn’t reached the reserve when I found two more species new to me. I found a patch of Fork-moss (Dicranum) at the base of a large conifer and tried to identify it. It took longer that the two sandstone species to identify but I managed. It turned out to be Whip Fork-moss (Dicranum flagellare). While I was kneeling on the cushion of soft pine needles, I spotted a small insect crawling along one of the roots of the conifer near the moss. On closer inspection I saw it was a globular springtail. I can’t do these by memory, so I took a few photos to look at when I returned home. Recently someone recommended www.collembola.org so that was my resource. It was easy to find as it seems to be quite common and I had a rough idea of which genus it was thanks to browsing the gallery on the NatureSpot website. New species #5 was Dicyrtoma fusca which is also my 5th ever springtail species identified.


We eventually reached the reserve. There were a couple of trails to choose from but we seemed to choose the wrong one and we only came across a few sandstone outcrops. We did manage to find two new species though, Scott’s Fork-moss (Dicranum scottianum), our second Dicranum species of the day, and the Forcipated Pincerwort (Cephalozia connivens). There weren’t as many bryophyte species as I hoped there would be, but I shall be following in the British Bryological Society (South-East Branch)’s footsteps and visiting Eridge Rocks on Sunday. According to our county recorder, Tom Ottley, the site is looking at its best for 3 decades so I hope to find lots more species.

The Loder Valley Reserve is situated around one of the two arms of Ardingly Reservoir. Therefore in the absence of sandstone, I could enjoy the birds that were on offer. I failed to see the Willow Tits that supposedly breed in the reserve, but I did see 7 Gadwall, 5 Mandarin Ducks and a Common Gull soaring high above us.


Introduction to Bryophytes

Bryophytes are mosses, liverworts and hornworts, and they are an amazing part of natural history. However, many people don’t know that, so this is why you should become interested in Bryophytes:

  • They are rather unrecorded. It is so easy  just to note the bryophytes you see on a short walk that it is hard to believe how few people actually do it. With a better understanding of them, they will be easier to conserve.
  • They can be found nearly anywhere! On trees, walls, houses, all over the place, even one or two on cars and underwater!
  • There are so many species! There are only 4 species of Hornwort, but you can find 763 species of mosses in the UK and nearly 300 Liverworts. Bryophytes love wet climates so that’s why Britain has about two-thirds of all European species!
  • Unlike some species which can only be studied some parts of the year, Bryophytes can be studied year-round. It is probably even easier to find Bryophytes in winter as they are much less likely to be covered by large plants!

I’ve only found 32 species so far and some can be quite difficult to ID, especially Sphagnums (bog mosses), therefore I recommend buying the British Bryological Society’s Field Guide for UK and Ireland. It can help you identify most of the species you find and has been put together by ‘a team of expert bryologists’. It includes keys, photographs, similar species, colour coding, drawings of key features etc.

It is easy to get started with finding Bryophytes, there isn’t too much equipment involved. The only thing beginners really need is a good hand lens but don’t worry if you don’t have that just yet, many species can be easily identified with the naked eye. I would suggest starting in your own garden, big or small, as there is bound to be many easy species there and is a good way to practise. But most of all: enjoy it!

Dotted Thyme-moss

Dotted Thyme-moss

Urn Haircap, my 32nd species

Urn Haircap, my 32nd species