Ditrichum plumbicola

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Identification notes

Ditrichum plumbicola is an extremely small and highly specialised moss, and to find it you will almost certainly be searching on or near a disused lead mine. Even there it has a particular niche – on the most toxic spoil, where little else can grow because of the high level of lead contamination.

Once other species typical of its calaminarian grassland habitat – Weissia controversa, Polytrichum species, Ceratodon purpureus, Rumex acetosella, Festuca ovina and various lichens etc. – become well established, D. plumbicola is usually long gone.

Often, old lead mines only have small populations of D. plumbicola and it’s worth employing a bit of fieldcraft to track them down when faced with a large area of spoil. It grows on fine clayey sediment, so heaps of hard talus will generally be unsuitable. Look for bare or semi-bare patches with a red-brown colour; these will be rich in lead minerals and toxic to most species. In old or very overgrown mines, very small areas of good substrate can linger where animals or erosion disturb the ground and expose fresh soil; they also keep the habitat open. D. plumbicola is tiny and favours spots where the microtopography affords shelter from the wind and sun. So on a flat site it should be searched for where open ground gives way to heath or grassland, and in the lee of small stones and soil bumps.

Many populations are threatened by tree and scrub encroachment and it cannot tolerate shade and dropped conifer needles for long. In some sites, such as those in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, fresh habitat is created periodically by digging shallow scrapes in the vegetation – these are quite successful.

Read the Field Guide account

Distribution in Great Britain and Ireland

View distribution from the BBS Atlas 2014

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