A jay swoops through the trees in silence, landing on an oak branch, an acorn held in its bill. A friend and I have a running gag. Wherever we see a jay we send a text or voice recording to eachother:
It originates from a trip to the White Carpathians mountains in Czechia one September. The bird we saw again and again was the jay. Always travelling around with or for acorns. As is now commonly known now, jays scatter-hoard thousands of acorns every year. They have helped pioneer Europe’s great oak woodlands along with squirrels and other smaller caching mammals.
Here in the Sussex Weald I find a fallen acorn split down its centre. The tannin red catches my eye. The shell is cracked because the acorn is shooting, seeking soil to establish itself in.
I’m tracing an old ditch or woodbank looking for fungi to photograph. There is an almost comical halt to the woodland where the heathland and its diminishing ranks of pine begin and the broadleaf oaks end. Marking that edge is an astonishing beech tree. Let me explain.
Part of the tree’s root plate has lifted. The lignified roots have become hardened like a drystone wall. They have developed into a lattice-work of branches, their function forever entangled by their appearance above ground.
The tree must have fallen about fifty years ago. But it has not died. Where the old trunk hit the other bank of the ditch it has made a sharp turn towards the sky to grow anew. Trees can teach us that to fall is rarely to fail.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
In the intensively managed woods of places like Czechia, it’s only a fallen tree stump that will give a home for a bracket.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rain spots my shirt as a storm threatens overhead. The heat in Sussex has been blistering this week, with a breach of the thirty-degree mark yesterday. Today it is much cooler. I waited until the late afternoon to head out while the last embers of the heatwave petered out.
I’m amazed to see that the leaves of a fallen beech limb are still alive, still in their early spring state. It brings me back to those promising early weeks when spring appears.
There is something sad about these paused beech leaves, perhaps because the tree has died with the fracture that has meant the leaves are so easy to reach and photograph. The tree had become rotten through its heart and base. A spring storm smashed through it and now here it lies. The leaves are beautiful, corrugated, and a fresh green.
Passing through a screen of holly and oak, I enter into an opening where giant beech trees live with great limbs like giant octopi. Everytime I come here someone has had a fire on the roots of the main beech tree. This is frustrating. The tree will be harmed by damage to the roots. The roots of a tree sit closer to the surface of the soil than you might think. This time, there is more than one firepit and signs of small trees like hazel being cut, sawn up and piled, either for another fire or a den. These old trees have clearly taken a beating over the years and I worry that people don’t understand their fragility, especially to fire.
In the raised buttresses of this veteran beech white sawdust has been left, the trail of saw blades having cut into the tree’s bark. In a sheltered nook of exposed roots a bunch of freshly cut twigs and small sticks has been piled for kindling. Could this have been a place where someone wanted to start a fire, could people really think the tree would not be harmed? I gather the sticks and scatter them among the holly.
The path slopes up between ranks of birch, beech and oak. On the banks bracken is encrusted with frost and the addition of oak and beech leaves. I love the sight of a silver-lined oak leaf and December is the month to find them.
It’s about 9am. Mist lingers up ahead like the faint hang of smoke from a campfire. All around I can hear the falling of droplets of water. Looking at my sleeves there is no sign of rain. Then I realise it’s the frost melting in the tops of the trees. Water only falls from their crowns.
In among the trees small birds flock and feed. These mixed groups of species have been building since September. A trio of bullfinch slip away from me in birch branches and bracken. Their fluty calls are faint and sweet. A white bib on their backs marks them out as they escape deeper into the dripping woods.
St. Leonard’s Forest was once more open than this. You can find huge beech trees dotted around from when they had the freedom to grow uninhibited. Now many more trees compete with them for light in the sky, good and water in the ground. One of the beeches has been damaged in a storm. A third of its trunk has fallen, splitting in two directions. Its summer leaves are still held by the fallen branches, shielding the scene of its collapse.
This is not a catastrophe. It could result in the tree living centuries longer. Looking more closely the trunk glows green with moss and algae. It raises one limb still high into the air. This is its lifeline. Its heartwood is now exposed and soon more insects and fungi will move in. This is not a symptom of human error or mistreatment. Its is the true wildness of a tree stepping into the realm of the ancient.
Unlike most, I’ve welcomed the wet weather of recent weeks in southern England. In August, this means mushrooms. Hopefully not only an early burst in August but a good autumn clutch. ‘The coming of the fungi’ in autumn is an event in nature’s calendar that I would put in the same bracket as the first migrant willow warbler, swallow or swift, or the first butterfly. Autumn is a time of plenty. When mushrooms arrive en masse, we are witnessing a spectacle many millions of years old.
A weekend visit to family in Essex meant a chance to visit the famous Epping Forest. This woodland is very close to London and is owned by the City of London Corporation (other sites outside London in Surrey and Hertfordshire also belong to them. I think they do a very good job). The Forest shows the scars of this proximity to one of the world’s biggest cities, namely the M25. It was interesting talking to family recently who grew up locally and their reminiscences of putting ‘stop the M25’ posters up in their windows. Epping Forest is also prey to nature writers (guilty as charged, but not published) framing their own ego against this ancient wooded landscape. The Forest and its mycelia feature in Robert Macfarlane’s recent award-winning book Underland, a book from a writer I love reading and admire greatly. However, I must to admit to disappointment in the lighting of a fire in that book. Even more so when I saw a tent and a fire in the Forest when I visited. The two obviously are not linked, but having been an urban woodland warden where fires were lit both in ignorance and violence, it is hugely galling (no pun intended). Leave no trace people, seriously.
I mentally (and verbally) built up my visit to Epping Forest due to the rain throughout the week. The mushroom boom in my eyes (let’s call it that) was spilling out from every path and Epping Forest’s many visitors were tripping up over them. The early signs upon entering were not good. The ground was battered by recent rain and the sloping nature of the landscape had meant the soil was scarified by the heavy downpours. Mushrooms, washed away. The first wildlife encounter of any note was the above robberfly which I noticed out of the corner of my eye on the brim of my (it needs to go in the wash) sunhat. These predatory flies (not of humans) have had a good summer and I’ve seen more than I ever have before this year. #LifeGoals.
It was only getting near to Ambresbury Banks (Aims-bury) that the mushrooms were in any way ‘common’. A slug-munched Boletus edulis or cep lay prone at the trackside. Then, half eaten, I found this:
Moving my little camera around to the right angle, you would never know the cap on the other side was almost completely gone. This is a tawny grisette (Amanita fulva). This was probably the least photogenic specimen I’ve ever found, but with the green flow of woodland behind and a bit of bokeh, anyone can look good.
Cheered by the sight of a half-eaten mushroom I checked out the swampy dog-poo realm alongside a path. There I spied these beautiful white parachutes (Marasmius) in wet soil amongst bramble twigs. My books are telling me they are Marasmiellus candidus AND Delicatula integrella. A woman passing by on her Saturday jog asked what I was looking at. She said how much she loved spending time in the Forest and that she was moving away soon. She said how important is was for her to see the seasons changing and how different the trees were in different parts of the Forest.
She’s not wrong. The bizarre pollard areas near Ambresbury Banks are unique. Their pollarding stopped as a local practice some 150 years ago due to a wrangle of Acts of Parliament – who could lop what and where. They are of significance to the whole of Europe (ecosystems are European-wide, people). In some areas holly dominates and things get a lot darker.
In one of the those areas I found an oysterling (Crepidotus) on a twig and found a nice tree to perch it in for its close-up. The gills look like flames to me and not of the campfire kind. See the darkness of high canopy beech and holly understorey? Creepy. A deer was hiding away here.
Ambresbury Banks is always worth visiting. This is an ancient earthwork or Iron Age Hillfort, which was likely created by the pre-Roman (-AD43) inhabitants of Britain. Legend has it that Boudicca battled the Romans here in AD61 but people say that about so many hills in London, trust no one. Also for anyone espousing ‘Indigenous British’ as a phrase about themselves as a pedestal for their polticial views, those Britons who built Ambresbury Banks were probably the last group of people who could say that. It is now populated by ancient beech pollards which have no view on Brexit, other than that it may remove their Natura 2000 protections as a site of European Significance. But then again we may not have food and medicine by 1st November.
In all fungal seriousness there were actually a pleasant number of ‘shrooms around this Iron Age propaganda ditch. Spindle shank (Collybia fusipes) was bubbling up nicely at the roots of beech trees, likely nibbling away at their wood under the soil. Bridges of beech are likely to be built across those ancient earthworks in the decades that come, if you get my drift(wood).
For photography brittlegills (Russula) are one of the most annoying. I have seen grey squirrels pull them from the soil and chew their gills down like some turbo corn-on-the-cob eating contest. Slugs also love them. Thankfully for you I found this Russula largely un-squirreled with some pleasant bokeh to be had in the world above. I lit the gills with my phone torch.
Another sign that autumn is not actually here yet was the state of the Amanita mushrooms. Two years ago I found many, many of these beauties near Connaught Water in the holly woods (nope, not that Hollywood) and they were in the same state. If I’ve learned one thing from mushrooms it’s:
You can’t hurry poisonous fungi
There is no basis of fact in that. Not that it matters nowadays. Fake ‘shrooms.
When you see so many Amanitas pretending to be beech nuts, you know autumn is tickling your toes. Winter is snoring.
This cheery chap was reaching out from under a ghastly bit of deadwood to say good afternoon. I’m not sure of the species and it will require a bit of rifling through the field guides to get a general idea. Answers on a postcard in the comments box please.
A beautiful morning in Epping Forest but what did fungi teach me? If you just walked in and found everything you ever wanted in fungi terms there would be no fun and you wouldn’t learn anything. Also, appreciate every chance you have to spend time in these special places and try not to make a campfire. Next up: Autumn.
In April 2014 I visited the Bavarian Forest, a landscape which, combined with the neighbouring Bohemian Forest in Czechia is the largest area of protected woodland in Europe. The Bavarian Forest or Bayerischer Wald, contains populations of lynx. In recent decades an outbreak of the spruce bark-beetle has devastated areas of conifer woodland. It is a remnant of the once vast Hercynian Forest.
The Bavarian Forest, Germany, April 2014
They burst from the slabs of granite like stony pillars. They are beech trees and they mask the view on all sides. They are giants imprisoning me on the path to Groβer Falkenstein. They are elephant limbs, they are victims of metaphor. Beneath them is a sea of copper and golden brown. The wind moves through last year’s fallen leaves and I think for a moment that it may be the sound of footsteps. Chunks of shining granite and smatterings of plant life break the spell of the endless leaves. Wood anemones, even this high, have opened their petals to the sun breaking through these yet leafing beeches.
I’ve travelled here over land and left the anemones coming towards the end of their annual cycle in London’s oldest woods. We have that in common, then, both species attempting to move through the woods of western Europe. Back home, I do my best to help them. Amidst my minute understanding of German and the feeling of isolation that brings as a lone traveller, I do get a sense of home from these white buttercups. Wood anemone is not the only plant to have made it up here, wood sorrel, one of the most common wildflowers in the Bavarian Forest, sits with its flower heads drooping, its leaves like the club from a pack of cards, still to be revealed. I continue on, touched by vertiginous thoughts as the path slaloms through the beeches, the mountainside steepening.
A stream channels its music to my ear and the familiar spread of marsh marigold, a buttercup that I’ve planted in the marshy woods back home and dunked into my parents’ enamel sink-pond by the kitchen window. Yesterday I feared hypothermia in the snow around Zwiesel’s mountains but today I’m in a t-shirt and a large orange butterfly bursts across the stream. It drives around me in a circle, never taking a moment to rest, it must still be too cold for it to pause too long. Butterflies need a body temperature of about 32 degrees to fly and forage properly. They often hold their wings out to trap hot air and warm their hairy bodies. It’s not as simple a manner of basking as it may seem. I think it’s a silver-washed fritillary.
I have come to the continent with a sense of something missing from England’s wildlife. This butterfly is one that was more common in England but has declined. It is a butterfly of woodland rides, laying its eggs on dog violets, plants which grow in my front garden and in our local woods. Last August in London I visited the doomed Heygate Estate in the Elephant and Castle to shadow an invertebrate survey with local entomologist, Richard ‘Bugman’ Jones. Led through the fencing by private security guards with gigantic German shepherds caged in the boot, we stepped out onto the parkland under the shade of cherries and mature London plane trees. The flicker of a butterfly’s wing caught my eye and Richard threw his net into the air. Looking at the contents we discovered a silver-washed fritillary. I could not quite believe it.
There is a sudden drop in temperature as I turn up the path, a chill wind skis across. In the shadows beneath boulders sits the remnants of yesterday’s snow. The spruce trees return, the snow thickening, slush on stone a recipe for serious injury. This is primary spruce woodland, or natural forest, formed without the helping hand of humans. However, the dominance of spruce lower down is due to the intervention of foresters (förster) in the first half of the twentieth century, as in England, when timber was needed to fuel either side of the world wars. It is telling – one of war’s casualties are woods.
From the boulders comes the drip of melting snow. Through the trees I see a large house that marks Groβer Falkenstein’s height of 1315m. A whisper passes through the highest spruce trees. A number of trees have been felled, the stumps cut with chainsaws. The ‘step cut’ in the stumps is still there, the torn wooden ‘hinge’ which the forester leaves intact and that helps guide the tree in the right direction when falling, throws up splinters.
I hear voices, laughter and that peculiar zenith-community that exists atop well-attended mountains of this kind. Four happy Germans appear to be double dating. I sit on a picnic bench by a cleared space of spruce, the scene hazy at best, the cloud cloaking the valley below. I hear a dunnock singing, a shy garden bird that instead nests in dense upland spruce plantations in this part of Europe. I eat some nuts and chocolate and head past a lady walking a hund, to the other side of the peak. The snow is deep, I clamber over spruce trunks to get to a plateau. One path back down has been closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. In London, 2014 holds 27 pairs.
I take a seat down on some soft, dead grasses, all around me are the dead and rotting stands of spruce said to have been killed by a spruce bark beetle outbreak. Many of the trees have been allowed to rest for fungi and other smaller, subtler wildlife, one of any woodland ecosystem’s most important aspects – the recyclers. I take it all in – the hazy folds of mountains, the glistening rooftops of immaculate Bavarian churches and towns. I head off and down through the spruce woods, under the song of the ring ouzel and firecrest. This path will take me to the realm of the lynx.