Ever been warned of tripping on a devil’s stinkhorn? It’s a sure to be a season of surprises underfoot as these bizarrely named fungi, and many more, are springing to attention all around the UK.
The sight of red and white spotted fly agaric conjures storybook memories of perching pixies. And the rounded white puffball is like a miniature moon which has crash landed on the moist woodland floor. This other world is full of exotic colours and shapes, surprising smells, whimsy, and a frisson of the dangerous and sinister.
Fungi are truly extraordinary and more people should know about them as they are vital to our existence and that of the planet as we know it. It is perhaps the one kingdom of the living world that is least widely understood.
Fungi are essential to the survival of wildlife - and our gardens. They are everywhere but we rarely see them. As soon as something dies fungi gets to work rotting, digesting and recycling; which keeps the soil healthy and nutritious. We know a great deal about these organisms, yet we also know that there is potentially still much to discover especially with regard to their conservation.
There are over 14,500 species in the UK. The main body is usually hidden underground or on rotting wood. Our 3,000 mushrooms and toadstools are only a small part of a much larger organism. Some fungus bodies can spread up to 15 miles across a woodland floor!
Often imbued with a mystical quality, fungi can add a wealth of interest to a walk through woodland. Mid- to end of October is the ideal time to look for grassland fungi – waxcaps show well at this time and being brightly coloured they are easy to see.
The Wildlife Trusts care for 2,300 nature reserves, many of which will be lit up with colourful fungi as autumn takes hold. Many Wildlife Trusts hold fungi forays, where you can learn more about these fascinating organisms with an expert on hand.
Woodland sites will be showing well for a few weeks yet now that the rain and the changing temperatures have arrived. Churchyards are often good for grassland fungi, as usually they’ve not been fertilised or ploughed for a long time.
Every so often, fungi will reproduce and a brightly coloured, sometimes stinky fruit packed with spores will break through the ground. These are the mushrooms which we see – and smell - on woodland walks. The spores are fungi’s version of seeds. Did you know the birds nest fungi wait for the rain to wash their ‘eggs’ - the spores - out of the nest? Or that the stomach fungi explodes its spores!
The nature of the trigger for fungal reproduction is not fully understood although the weather and season are clearly important influences. Last year proved cold and with the ground too waterlogged, it wasn’t a ‘fruitful year. It is the damp weather, generally associated with this time of year gives mycologists ample opportunity to pursue a passion for all things fungal.
This year, a combination of warm temperatures and right amount of rain (not too much but enough) has proved excellent for fruiting. This glut raises a particularly taxing issue; the fashion for picking wild mushrooms for the pot.
Sustainable harvesting is fine if you know what you’re collecting and they’re for your own use. Although, unless you are with an experienced guide who knows their fungi, picking and eating is not advisable. With only 50 species being good to eat, not only can they be fatally poisonous, you may be picking a rare specimen.
Unfortunately, there are already recent reports of gangs pillaging the countryside for selling on to restaurants and even exporting them. Collecting large numbers for commercial use and clearing woodlands for someone back at base to sort out the edibles is of real conservation concern.
Many invertebrates rely on fungi and wild mammals take advantage of this autumn harvest, enthusiastically gathered and eaten by the red squirrel. Of course a bumper crop also helps provide foodstuffs for the little creatures before the winter comes – some say we are in for bad one…