The Sussex Weald: the piping woodpunk

On the last day of May I set off on a walk into the High Weald not far from where I live. It was spring at its height, with warm weather more like the summer months to come. I waited until the late afternoon to head out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t love walking in the heat, secondly, the light is better for photography when the sun’s glare has softened.

The willows had begun to release their seeds, the ground covered in a coat of white fluff. This seed dispersal is what makes willow so effective. The catkins are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, which then produce the seeds. The same effect comes from poplars, which are willow relatives.

Hawthorn peaks around the end of May and I always look for insects on its nectar-rich flowers. I didn’t have a macro lens at the time but with my zoom found this large sawfly nectaring. Sawflies are relatives of bees and wasps, though sawflies actually came first. Their reputation is usually defined by the behaviour of the larvae of a species which can eat roses. You can of course say the same about many other species, moths for example.

The High Weald is home to a lot of Scots pine, where it succeeds the once open heathland. I have always been confused by the ‘native range’ of pine, whether it is naturally occurring in places like the Weald. It was planted for forestry, especially on the heaths, though it is not being harvest in the same way here anymore. Pines are gymnosperms which came before the flowering plants (angiosperms). They evolved over 300 million years ago, whereas angiosperms ‘arrived’ 130million years ago.

A flowering plant I was hoping to find on this walk was lily of the valley. Last year I found this beautiful plant in the very same spot. Someone who works on this site told me that it may be evidence of earlier human settlement because it was once cultivated for perceived medical purposes. That would require a blog in itself!

Having spent several years working, walking and hanging around in woodlands, you become accustomed to hearing certain birds and learn about their behaviour. One call I’m unlikely to forget is that of the great spotted woodpecker nestling. I was walking along a track, mostly minding my own business, when I heard the piping of the little woodpunks. There didn’t seem to be many suitable trees around, but the birds were definitely there.

Continuing down the path I saw that a hole had been made in this standing dead birch tree. I could hear a nestling but also another woodpecker nearby, outside of a nest. I used the foliage seen here to hide for a while – still on a footpath – and see what would happen.

The nestling soon popped its little head out of the tree hole, calling for its next meal. They are beautiful little birds. I did once have the chance to see one up close after it fell out of a nest:

They are beautiful, reptile-like birds. I once said to a colleague who was also a herpetologist that they look reptilian.

He scolded me: ‘they are reptilian!’

The Wealden woodpunk did get its dinner after a while. A parent bird returned to pass food between bills. It was such an incredible thing to witness and all the more special because I had not expected to see it that day. It was also interesting to see the role of fungi in this breeding opportunity. The birch tree had been softened internally (if not actually ‘killed’) by birch polypore, a type of bracket fungus. I received several other examples from people in London of great spotted woodpeckers breeding in standing dead birch trees. It should be a lesson to people managing woodlands or birchy landscapes such as heathland – this is an important tree species in the wider ecosystem.

The first oak leaves were out in that lovely fresh green, which will soon turn more leathery and a deeper shade.

New holly leaves were appearing also, like little flames or woodpecker crests in the shade.

On the return home from the woods, I noticed these large spikes of orchids in a field. A new farm building had been built in the background. At the edge of this field, alongside the footpath I was on, the landowner had tried to plant leyland cypress and laurel, probably the worst things to plant in this landscape, next to rhododendron (which was nearby anyway). It seemed so mean-spirited to block the view of this expanse and its rare flowers for people passing by. Do people know how privileged they are to own land like this in England?

I know this beech tree agreed with me (yes, it’s been a long year). Or at least that’s what its facial expression seemed to suggest.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

Recent posts:

Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

#FungiFriday: how hunter gatherers used fungi to make fire

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King Alfred (not a hunter gatherer) burning a woman’s cakes © BBC Horrible Histories

Fungi Friday 17th July 2020

I have been taking an online archaeology course through the website FutureLearn. You can imagine my sheer delight when one of the sections was focused on, you guessed it, FUNGI!

The course explores the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) archaeological site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. The fungi section of the course covers the species discovered at the site and what they might have been used for by the people living there between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago.

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Image of the Excavation site Star Carr located in North Yorkshire England. The image is a reconstruction Alan Sorrell’s reconstruction of Star Carr in 1951, Illustrated London News 3 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Mesolithic followed the Paleaeolithic (Old Stone Age) in 13,000BC, ending with the Neolithic (New Stone Age) around 5,000BC.

The Neolithic is seen as the period where human populations became more settled after the development of farming. These agricultural developments are what gave us much of the world we live in today. Current European farming techniques originated in the Middle East, slowly spreading west to replace the old hunting and gathering of the Mesolithic.

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Map of the spread of Neolithic farming cultures in Europe, dates in year BCE (via Wikimedia Commons)

But this isn’t Farmy Friday, so let’s get back to the pre-agricultural times when mushrooms were a key resource.

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King Alfred’s cakes

King Alfred’s cakes

The fungal finds at Star Carr have produced specimens of hoof fungus, willow bracket and birch polypore. This doesn’t include the species known as crampballs, King Alfred’s cakes, or in scientific language Daldinia concentrica. From experience, this is the fungus that people in Britain today most recognise as one which can be used in the process of making fire. This is probably because of the recent boom in bushcraft. The fungus gets its most evocative name of King Alfred’s cakes after an English folk story.

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To people outside the UK or without a grasp of English history, this name is quite meaningless. It is based on the tale of King Alfred who was exiled in the Somerset Levels during the Viking invasion of Winchester. Alfred failed to keep an eye on a woman’s loaves of bread that were on the fire and they burned. It is said that she had no idea he was the king, so far removed was he from his throne. Don’t worry, he eventually came back and pushed the Danes away a bit and established England.

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Birch polypore

Birch polypore

Last week I donated 1000 of my own words to the cause of bracket fungi. The findings from Star Carr have taught me about how these fungi were used by our ancient ancestors. Perhaps most interestingly, the fungi found were largely there because they had been foraged from elsewhere. Star Carr is a site next to a lake, so any woodland surrounding it will have been wet and it’s likely the people living there travelled to other places to gather fungi. There is evidence of the trading of ornaments and other items from across Europe, so people were not confined to the area itself in the way we live now.

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Birch polypore in winter, West Sussex

Birch polypore or razorstrop fungus haunts me out there in the woods. It is the one that catches the corner of my eye and fools me into thinking it’s autumn. It is a very common species where it acts to control population density. It plays a crucial ecological role in that it breaks birch trees down into nutrients and minerals, and therefore a substrate which can become soil. Fungi in woodlands are life-giving organisms. As a resource it was once used to sharpen tools in the manner of a leather strop, but it is also very useful in its ability to burn slowly and for long periods. This would have been crucial for people who were travelling and needed to make regular camps as we know Mesolithic peoples did.

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Birch trees coming into leaf in West Sussex

Birch trees

Birch is an incredible resource. Like fungi, it can be used to make fire. There is no doubt that birch will have been used by hunter-gatherers for this purpose. The bark was used to make slippers, matting, boxes, even canoes. At Star Carr birch bark rolls were discovered. The evidence is that they were cut from a tree and would have been used as torches. The ‘tar’ inside birch bark could have been extracted and used to secure flint arrow heads. Nowadays it’s known for being able to make birch wine when the sap begins to run in spring.

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The Bavarian Forest

Hoof fungus and hunter gatherers

The image above is of a dead beech tree covered in bracket fungi. Hoof fungus, so named because it looks like a horse’s hoof, appears to be a key species in Mesolithic Europe. It’s present across the Northern Hemisphere so it will also have been of use to Native American peoples. It has another common name of tinder fungus. An important material deriving from hoof fungus is amadou. This is the spongy inside of hoof fungus that can be used to make embers. The video below by the team at Star Carr shows how it can be used, along with pyrite, to make a fire. This is exactly what people in Mesolithic times would have done.

It just goes to show how resourceful people were in the Stone Age. It also reminds us of how important fungi has been to us, not just on the ecological level of recycling organic matter and its place in the woodland ecosystem. It helped to keep people warm and therefore alive.

Thanks for reading!

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#FungiFriday: on bracket mushrooms and illegal logging

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Fungi Friday 10th July 2020

I went on a bike ride to the edge of a large woodland complex on Fungi Friday Eve (AKA Thursday). I went in hope of finding that mushrooms, after a fair amount of rain, were bursting forth from the soil, fresh and bright, ready for their close up. As usual I was wrong. There was pretty much nothing, not that I managed to make it into the best areas, it’s quite a trek. I did find some fungi though, a cluster of giant brackets that are there all year round:

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This is probably artist’s bracket or something similar. They live on decaying wood in living or dead trees. They are an important controllers of tree species and contribute therefore greatly to tree diversity in woodlands. Unlike what you might think, their presence does not always mean the tree is dying or that they are harming the tree.

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Birch polypore is a nice example of a tree-controller, a species which is commonly seen on birch. It has a fantastic scientific name – Piptoporus betulinus! It’s also known as razor strop, probably because people once used it to sharpen their knives (which were a day-to-day essential) in the way that you might use a piece of leather. That connection between people and fungi is one I think it’s sad we’ve lost. I wonder, is this still a living connection anywhere else in the world today?

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Bracket fungi, Bavarian Forest

Bracket fungi are something we’re losing from the wooded landscapes of Europe largely from the explosion of forestry in the past 100 years and an intensification of woodland management. The oldest woodlands I’ve ever been to (I know that doesn’t mean much) were covered in dead or decaying trees with large brackets. The Bavarian Forest, as seen above, was a fine example.

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Red belted polypore in the mountains of the Romanian Carpathian

One reason why we have less brackets is because large trees have not been left to live their lives to the full and beyond. Most trees in forests have a target age and size, bracket fungi are a pest in those places, not that most trees would ever get to the age where substantial brackets could develop.

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Red belted bracket in the White Carpathians, Czech/Slovak border

In the intensively managed woods of places like Czechia, it’s only a fallen tree stump that will give a home for a bracket.

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Białowieża Forest in north-eastern Poland

Possibly the most bracket-rich landscape I’ve visited is Białowieża Forest in Poland, famed for its ancient stretches of woodland and rich diversity of tree species, said never to have been logged. Not even by the Nazis invading in the Second World War.

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A small-leaved lime (I think) in Bialowieza Forest, north-eastern Poland

From experiences of visiting these rich woodland landscapes, a sign of brackets is often a symbol of a healthy ecosystem. The brackets are softening wood inside of trees which make a greater range of habitat niches for other life.

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Saproxylic invertebrates (those which live in or depend on dead or decaying wood) are the most threatened species group in Europe. Many of these insects have important, dove-tailing ecological relationships with fungi. The stag beetle is a nice example, a species which is born with its own fungus used to decay wood in its wood-boring larval stage (we’ve all been there). Woodpeckers are also dependent on this wood-softening created by bracket fungi.

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Old-fashioned forestry practices in the Romanian Carpathians

I read this week that furniture behemoth IKEA have been linked to illegally felled beech woodlands in the Ukrainian Carpathians. They are selling products in the UK made from timber felled with a licence approved by the FSC but which is in fact thought to be illegal. IKEA has been here before, not least for accusations of using timber from ancient woodlands in Karelia, a region in northern Russia. For the recent Ukraine story, please watch the excellent (and witty) Channel 4 report here:

The Carpathians are a mountain range that cut through Europe, fizzling out in Czechia, reaching their most epic heights in Romania. They are one of the most incredible landscapes Europe has to offer. They also cross through the Ukraine, where the high beech woodlands are some of the oldest in Europe. Recently some of these woodlands were designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. As so often is the case, outlying areas can be prone to exploitation through illegal forestry operations.

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In 2015 I visited the Romanian Carpathians. My friend and I hiked out of the Transylvanian town of Sinaia and into the mountains. There we witnessed the logging of beech trees using horses. It was amazing to see, and something far more ecologically kind to a woodland, rather than using heavy machinary that destroys the soil (and all the fungi in it). We can only presume this was a legal operation. However, illegal loggingin in some of Romania’s most important woodlands has become so serious that rangers and woodland protectors have been murdered for attempting to stop it. The EU has to do more, as it did in protecting Bialowieza Forest from ecologically-illiterate forestry.

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Ancient beech and spruce woodlands in the Carpathians

We are dependent on fungi and woodlands to make our world inhabitable. There need to be core areas of woodland which are allowed to follow cycles which are not interrupted or undermined by economic activity like intensive forestry. We can play our part in conserving things from afar by knowing who we are buying products from and where they originate from. That said, it’s not made any easier for the woodland or the consumer if ancient beech woodlands are being converted to fold-out chairs under a Forestry Stewardship Council certificate.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

 

#FungiFriday: September shrooms in Scotland, part two – Ben Vrackie

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#FungiFriday 25th April 2020

For another week the Covid-19 pandemic is keeping me away from the woods and therefore the shrooms. This fungal breaking news desk has run out of scoops, so it’s more like a sports channel airing classic re-runs.

I had been intending to post about some fantastic fungal hiking experiences (sounds weird) from a 2018 visit to Scotland but work and life stopped me. I have three hikes to share with you which should get you through the next three weeks of lockdown. I do hope anyone reading this is doing well and that you’re following the guidance.

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These posts remind me of my uncle Joe Reilly who passed away in November. Joe was a Glaswegian by birth who, along with my aunt Marg, introduced me to some of the most beautiful places the UK has to offer in Perthshire, among so many other gifts. I would visit Marg and Joe in Perthshire as often as I could, often in autumn when going to meet my hiking companion Eddie (seen here) for a jaunt in the Cairngorms.

Joe fell for fungi like I did in recent years and I will always miss his WhatsApp messages with mushrooms he had found on Perthshire walks. We miss his thirst for life terribly but carry it on just as he did.

Last week I was sharing fungi found on a walk around Clunie Wood in Pitlochry.

This week I’m reminiscing about a hike from Pitlochry up to the summit of Ben Vrackie accompanied by my friend Eddie. Below the tree line, a pleasing range of fungi were found.

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The walk leaves the town of Pitlochry and heads up through suburbs. This manicured field had a rowan so heavy with berries it looked like it was falling over. I have never seen so many on one tree.

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The day was warm and while I waited for Eddie to change out of his underlayers behind a tree I scoped out some shrooms in the first piece of woodland we encountered. I’m not sure what this species is. I found them pre-plucked at the side of the path.

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Further up through the woodland this common puffball was sitting among the leaf litter. This has to be one of the most common woodland mushrooms to find in the UK. This is always a good sign of what is to come on a longer walk. Puffballs can be an indicator of a good amount of fungi on the ground.

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The woodland broke into something more open as the moorland and hills approached, with large birch trees growing along the edge of the path. A tree stump held this gathering of yellow staghorn. I asked Eddie if he would help to add something to this pic! Probably one of my fave fungi photos.

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As we ascended towards the winding set of steps that take you to the top of Ben Vrackie, we saw two golden eagles floating above another hill nearby. This was only the second time I’d seen golden eagles in the UK. They are massive!

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The fungi in these areas thins out to small species connected to the habitat and the odd common species which is particularly good at spreading its spores and growing in a range of habitats (stuff like sulphur tuft on dead wood). For those who don’t know, this is heather moorland. Short on trees so not the richest place for fungi. Then again I haven’t spent enough time looking.

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This is a popular walk from Pitlochry. Lots of people were coming and going from the 841m summit of Ben Vrackie. Here is Eddie trying to get some soul signal from the gods. He failed.

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The views north into the Cairngorms were beguiling. Landscape photographers would have appreciated the range of weather available and the clouds which gave extra character to the views. While we sat up here eating lunch, a man and his two sons reached the top. He told them a story of when he had climbed a hill with £200 cash in his pocket. He knew it was a bad idea and half way up the money slipped out of his pocket and away into the landscape. He salvaged £20. His boys told him it had indeed been a bad idea.

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Rain following the River Garry through the valley from Blair Atholl. This photo has been enhanced to bring out the distant peaks and rainfall.

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Rain arriving in the hills.

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Descending back down through the tree line, we took the same path back. It’s interesting how you see things so differently when you walk a single route in another direction. Here was a very large birch polypore, also known as razorstrop fungus. It is a natural controller of birch trees and is possibly one of the easiest species to find.

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On the way back we found what I think is a birch bolete. It was reaching out from the path edge and had already been nibbled on by slugs. A real treat to find something like this.

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It was a pleasant surprise was to find a chantarelle, one of the most sought-after edible fungi. This one had already been plucked (I think).

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I’m really not sure what species these shrooms are, but they were a nice find.

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On the way back we visited this beautiful pub, the Moulin Hotel, with conifer beams holding up a balcony. It dates from the 17th century.

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The rain was coming and going throughout the afternoon. It reminded me why Scotland is so good for fungi. There is a high level of rainfall, large areas of woodland and acidic soils which seem so good for mushrooms.

Next week it’s fungal royalty in the Cairngorms.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms