The top UK sites for algae have been identified for the first time in a Plantlife report published today.
The Important Plant Areas for Algae report has been compiled for the wild-plant conservation charity Plantlife International by scientists from the Natural History Museum and the British Phycological Society.
Seaweed, Laminaria digitata © MD Guiry
'This report brings together an immense wealth of knowledge from the UK's algal experts, some of which has not been documented before,' says Museum algal expert and one of the report's authors, Dr Juliet Brodie.
Dr Deborah Long, Plantlife Scotland's Conservation Officer, explains why the new report is a great tool. 'This is the sort of information that helps us identify appropriate site management and also to recognise when activities could be detrimental.'
Algae are extraordinary organisms that appear in a huge variety of forms. They range from microscopic phytoplankton, the basis of most marine food chains, to seaweed, which can grow to reach several metres in length.
Algae is the collective name given to a large group of simple organisms that photosynthesise, a process that converts sunlight into chemical energy. They vary from single-celled microbes through to complex seaweeds.
About 34,000 species are recognised today although it has been estimated that there could be at least 350,000 algal species worldwide.
Cover of Important Plant Areas for Algae report
An amazing variety of algae live on the UK's seashores and inland waters and the UK is home to some very rare species and unusual algal habitats.
'Our position on the Atlantic seaboard makes the UK one of the richest areas in Europe for seaweeds and freshwater algae,' says Museum algal expert and other report author, Dr David John.
'However, the algae in freshwater sites are often vulnerable to degradation by nutrient enrichment and other pollutants, while threats to marine habitats include coastal development, dredging and fish farming, so there is a need to safeguard the diversity of all these special algal sites.'
For seaweeds (marine algae), nine sites around the UK are listed as being of international importance, including Falmouth and Helford in Cornwall, Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, the Isle of Cumbrae off the Scottish coast and Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland.
There is a longer list of 55 sites nominated as being of national importance, and a further 28 nominated but needing more data.
There are six sites of international importance for the freshwater green algae known as desmids. Four are in the Lake District, one in the St Just area of Cornwall, and one in Sutherland.
A further 12 sites are nominated as being of national importance for desmids, and there are another 27 potential sites.
Dr John adds, 'Desmids - beautiful microscopic green algae - are characteristic of acidic standing water bodies that abound in northerly and westerly parts of the British Isles. They often dominate the plankton in these habitats and are therefore important as the base of the food web.'
'Whilst it is important to conserve these sites for their biodiversity value alone,' adds Dr Brodie, 'they also have potential for future human exploitation.'
'Seaweeds are used commercially as food and have many other uses, including in fertilisers, cosmetics, as biofuels and potentially as treatments for human ailments such as cancer and high cholesterol.'
The report's authors say that knowing where these algae are is only the first step, and they highlight the need to find out more about them and to safeguard this diversity.