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Lichens are mutualistic associations of a fungus and an alga or cyanobacterium and occur as crusty patches or bushy growths on trees, rocks and bare ground. The names given to lichens strictly refer to the fungal partner; the algae have separate names. Lichens are very sensitive to sulphur dioxide pollution in the air. Since industrialisation, many lichen species have become extinct in large areas of lowland Britain, one example being the beard moss Usnea articulata. This is mainly due to sulphur dioxide pollution, but the loss of habitat, particularly ancient woodland, has also led to reductions in some species. Lichens are sensitive to sulphur dioxide because their efficient absorption systems result in rapid accumulation of sulphur when exposed to high levels of sulphur dioxide pollution. The algal partner seems to be most affected by the sulphur dioxide; chlorophyll is destroyed and photosynthesis is inhibited. Lichens also absorb sulphur dioxide dissolved in water.

Lichens are widely used as environmental indicators or bio-indicators. If air is very badly polluted with sulphur dioxide there may be no lichens present, just green algae may be found. If the air is clean, shrubby, hairy and leafy lichens become abundant. A few lichen species can tolerate quite high levels of pollution and are commonly found on pavements, walls and tree bark in urban areas. The most sensitive lichens are shrubby and leafy while the most tolerant lichens are all crusty in appearance. Since industrialisation many of the shrubby and leafy lichens such as Ramalina, Usnea and Lobaria species have had very limited ranges, often being confined to the parts of Britain with the purest air such as northern and western Scotland and Devon and Cornwall.

A lichen zone pattern may be observed in large towns and cities or around industrial complexes which corresponds to the mean levels of sulphur dioxide experienced. The most commonly used zonal index is the Hawksworth and Rose index, first published in 1970, consisting of a scale of 1 (poorest air quality) to 10 (purest air). Particular species of lichen present on tree bark can indicate the typical sulphur dioxide levels experienced in that area. For example if there are no lichens present, the air quality is very poor (zone 1), whilst generally only crusty lichens such as Lecanora conizaeoides or Lepraria incana can tolerate poor air quality (zone 3). In moderate to good air, leafy lichens such as Parmelia caperata or Evernia prunastri can survive (zone 6) and in areas where the air is very clean, rare species such as ‘the string of sausages’ Usnea articulata or the golden wiry lichen Teloschistes flavicans may grow (zone 10).

The Hawksworth and Rose index zonation index applies only to areas where sulphur dioxide levels are increasing. If sulphur dioxide conditions are falling, lichens rarely colonise in exactly the same sequence. Lichens are slow growing and may take a year or two to recolonise bark or other substrates following a reduction in air pollution levels, and tiny recolonising specimens can be difficult to spot and identify.

During the early and mid-twentieth century, air pollution levels were much greater than they are today in towns and cities of the UK. Sulphur dioxide levels were highest in the inner city areas becoming less polluted out towards the edges of the urban areas. At such times, the lichen zone scale would often highlight zone 1 as the inner city area, moving through the zones to the cleaner air at the edge of the city. From the 1970s onwards, sulphur dioxide levels have been falling markedly in the central and outer areas of cities, such that there may be no differentiation between levels in central and outer areas of many cities. The fall in sulphur dioxide levels between the 1970s and the present day has led to a number of lichens recolonising in areas from which they had previously been eliminated.