Tread Lightly – on Gathering Lichen

Some of my images and posts in this blog, refer to using lichens for creating dyes for textiles. If you are motivated to do the same, please consider the following.

Foraging for and gathering lichens for use as dyes, herbal teas or any other purpose, requires utmost consideration.  Lichens rely on clean air and exacting environmental situations. If you are fortunate enough to live in a lichen-rich area, be aware that this is the exception to the tragically common situation: that lichens and their habitats are increasingly under threat from our polluted environment.

Even if some species appear abundant: this might be a local variation, and these lichens are special only to your area.

If you are gathering lichens, consider:

    • Check with your local ecologist (council, national park, etcetera) about protected species or no-take zones in your area.
    • Learn to identify exactly what you want. There are links on Youtube as well as the resources listed below.
    • Ask yourself – do I really need to take this; and if so, how can I make do with less?
    • Take from brown-site areas if you can, rather than green spaces.
    • Only take lichens that have fallen from their source of attachment.
  • If you do have a clear intention for using foraged lichen and if it is not a protected/rare species, and you wish to detach it from its source: do not take more than 10% from each cluster, and gather small quantities from several clusters rather than just from one. Take only what you can justify using.

In Devon, the following resources were made available to me from Richard Knott, a Dartmoor National Park ecologist.

Note that in the links, certain zones in our region are protected zones and nothing can be taken from them, even if it has fallen from its source of attachment.

Richard’s advice:

” The British Lichen Society website has a wealth of information, from which I highlight the following

ID guides

Getting started, these Field Studies Council laminated, illustrated fold-out guides:

  • Guide to Common Churchyard Lichens (2004)
  • Guide to Common Urban Lichens 1. on Trees and Wood (2006)
  • Guide to Common Urban Lichens 2. on Stone and Soil (2006)
  • Guide to Lichens of Heaths and Moors (2008), FSC laminated fold-out chart.
  • Guide to Rocky Shore Lichens (2009), FSC laminated fold-out chart.
  • Key to Lichens on Twigs by Pat Wolseley, Peter James & Diccon Alexander (2003)

All available from FSC and specialist bookshops.

In more detail, this field identification guide for Britain & Ireland:

Lichens: an Illustrated Guide to the British and Irish Species (6th edition) by Frank Dobson (2011). Richmond Publishing, Slough. 480 pp.

Introductory ideas


There should be no problem collecting small ‘voucher specimens’ for personal study of the common species, provided you have the landowner’s permission. See

Note that this advice would not cover collection for any commercial purpose.

In my experience, the best way to learn is to accompany experienced lichenologists on field excursions. The Devonshire Association botany group occasionally hold lichen-specific field trips.

Dartmoor-specific resources

Below is a list of the well-known top woodland lichen sites on Dartmoor:

Black Tor Copse

Wistmans wood

Dart Valley Woods

Dendles Wood

Whiddon Deer Park

Dewerstone Woods

All of these are Sites of Special Scientific Interest and there should be no collection of specimens without permission (see guidance, above).

Dartmoor has many nationally important habitats and listing the best sites can give the impression that nothing else needs attention. Some other habitats include clean rivers, mine spoil, tors, clitter, walls, and isolated veteran trees. “

Thanks to Richard for that…

Tread lightly, lichen lovers!



Demijohn collecting birch-sap

Some years back, just before spring broke through, Sean and I discovered a birch wood, deep in the wilds of the moor, with some good trees that we could tap for sap, to make wine. Each year we find new trees to tap, or only return to known places after several years have passed, so that those trees can rest from human intervention.

The lovely copse, comprising both young and established birch, as well as oak and smaller trees, settles on a slight slope. It was busy at that time of year, with birdsong; its floor was damp with last years russet bracken, scattered with mossy boulders, and little ferns nestled amongst quartz-streaked granite. The two trees we chose, each yielded two gallons of the crystal clear, delicious liquid from the small cuts Sean made – slowly at first – and then, one night after full moon, a good stream of the stuff.   Wood ants, roused from underground slumber by the creak of rising sap, were present at the wounds on the trees: evidence of their taste for sipping it, too.

We returned again the next day to collect the last of our bounty (taking only what we intended to use for ourselves and amongst friends, and not thrashing the trees for the many gallons they can produce) and to ensure the tap-holes were securely pegged; and to carry out a simple ritual of thanks for what we had taken.

usually, this just involves simple presence, silence, acknowledging and partaking as we focus on being grateful. Neither Sean or I are religious people (and the world ‘spiritual’ as used in popular culture, makes me shudder with cynicism). But to live without consciously acknowledging gratefulness, is to undermine the profundity of connection to those places, people and events which bind us all in sustaining co-existence. ‘To thank’ is also to honour, respect, and hold in esteem; a most practical practice. It is also akin to the traditional ‘old ways’ of my father’s Himalayan, animist/Buddhist ancestors, and so taking time to thank, is one of the ways that I act to belong still, with this distant kin, and that these traditions might echo, albeit faintly, over the continents between us.

Amongst our day-packs we took a candle to light and burn during the moments of our silent focus on those connections, and on the beauty of the place. It was only when we got there, and had carried out our simple maintenance of the trees (plugging the cuts) and retrieval (of vessels), that I noticed the moss-covered, cut-down stump of the tree where we had rested our belongings: that it appeared somehow like an altar in the exact centre of a circle of birches. It is interesting how the metaphor ‘not seeing the wood for trees’ can be made in a woodland! Sean was delighted to make the same observation, then he drew a breath, and pointed and said:

Look!’… and we suddenly saw something else as we had not seen it on our reconnaissance and sap-tapping trips: a stark, dead, oak tree appeared to loom in half-human form, open armed and benevolent over our activities; evoking the archetypal imagery that might be present at countless temples and shrines.

‘Staghorn’ oak: a dead oak, it’s branches turned bone-hard

It was beautiful, evocative, entirely naturally formed and astonishing. It seemed then, as if we had re-discovered the place anew. Our shared knowledge of cultural traditions prompted us to name the symbolism of birch in the ancient oghams, as a tree of new beginnings, and to make associations with that in our lives. Our pockets and bags then tumbled out, synchronously, the practical items in them now transformed as the items that the tarot’s Magician would have on his altar – he also, is at the first step of a new journey.

Birch polypore fungus brackets

Spring, renewal, rising sap and appreciation: we lit the candle, found and made a tiny quantity of earthy incense of dried leaves, dusty polypore fungus and a hawthorn berry, and smouldered it on a stone.  We drank a toast of that year’s sap mixed with the previous year’s wine, and poured some, as in wassailing and other traditions of renewal, onto the roots of our tapped birches, on our improvised altar and around the circle of trees. We ate some cake we had brought, leaving generous crumbs for the wood ants.

hand carved wooden Kuksa by Sean Hellman; filled with sap we had just tapped from birch trees. Branches reflect runic patterns on the surface.
image (c) Lucy Lepchani

When we had finished our reflective silence, we left without leaving any trace to the human eye, that we had been there; treading our eco-footprints as lightly as is possible for ruthless pillagers of tree sap.

But the experience has left its footprints indelibly upon us, connecting us strongly. This serendipitous place was, and is now where we more meaningfully belong. It is part of our story from relaying the practical and heritage events, to marking a shared experience of  individuation – the meeting of conscious and unconscious aspects of selves.

This experience, and others similarly encoutered, most often occur when conscious effort is made on our part to sense with our senses differently than with our everyday states of mind: to play, or to engage without any agenda but that which makes the moment more meaningful.

Ritual, too, is play: and vice versa. Whether intended and complex, or simple and improvised; whether it draws on major rites of passage known to us all, or whether it is the routines that we carry out to make some otherwise everyday event ‘special’: this imparts an altered state of consciousness than that of the mundane, anxious, ambitious, harsh, stressful and self-conscious demands of society, and those aspects of ourselves.

Some would have it, that ritual such as ours was, enables a connection to the spirit world. Others would have it that conscious practices and routines reinforce states of perception so that the repetition itself, effects heightened consciousness. Others have other explanations.

Mine is that imagination, play, and creativity are at the core of human belonging in the world and that our human ingenuity, our existence, depends on it: that imagination is, and creativity echoes, and that play reflects the wildest domains of human nature, connecting us where we belong in the eco-system that spans atoms, Earth, cosmos.

What also awes me, is that amidst all the noise and haste of our contemporary lives, we frantic humans can still observe and experience the world attuned to the perceptions of our ancestors: the originators of language, of symbolism, of way-markers between stars and soil, and through these simplest of rituals that connect.

I think of this every time I sip birch sap, or taste its syrup, sugars, wine. Imbibing birch evokes each time, that other level of belonging with the world for which I am so deeply grateful.

Birch-sap on the tree-stump ‘altar’