This post is part of my Woodlands project
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One of the great rewards of cultivating an interest in wildlife is the freshness and newness, the constant change. In spring it’s the woodland flowers breaking through the soil, in summer the bees, wasps and butterflies, and in autumn I seek out mushrooms on the woodland floor. This autumn, however, has not given the third kingdom of biological life, the fungi, what it needs. It has been very dry in the south of England. In October 2015 clouded and trooping funnels were romping across the woodland floor but this year there is very little soil-based fungi. Thanks to the astute minds of woodland conservationists who leave deadwood ‘in situ’ there are still mushrooms to be found and photographed for those of us who seek it. As I’ve said before, I’m not a forager for no good reason other than that I just enjoy photographing mushrooms. The New Forest has received publicity recently for its mushrooms and the Forestry Commission’s ban on all picking.
Sure enough the signs were up when entering Forestry Commission land. I put similar signs up in my professional life and wish more people would respect the landowner’s wishes. But I sympathise with both sides in this case. Peter Marren argues that the Forestry Commission do more damage than a forager ever could with the use of heavy duty forestry machinery. Mushrooms are just the fruiting body of the fungus itself and the most important thing for any soil-based fungus is the mycelium in the soil. When heavy machinery is used in a forestry setting the soil is churned up and the mycelium destroyed. Even when the biggest band of foragers comes to raid the nest, they will only really be doing what the organism wants – spreading the spores released by the mushroom and leaving the mycelium intact. I sympathise with both arguments and feel that Marren may have the edge scientifically.
Conservation debates aside, there were lots of mushrooms to be seen. It has only been in the final weeks of October that honey fungus (Armillaria) has begun to appear and I came across large spreads of this most attractive and demonised mushroom. It is necrotrophic and often takes more from a tree than it gives in return in the symbiotic sense, meaning that the tree can often fail. It’s a native species often indicative of ancient woodland, so it’s been killing and breaking down trees for millions of years in Europe. But when it costs people money, people get angry.
Honey fungus is the common name for a number of different types which are more difficult to identify straight away. I came across this charming clutch at the base of a beech tree. To think that fungi is in the fossil record as far back as 700 million years ago, while the Homo genus we have evolved from broke from other primates 3 million years ago. I feel we owe these unthinkably ancient organisms respect, which means not taking more than we should and protecting their habitats and allowing them to be, well, mushrooms. I think this species is Armillaria mellea owing to the ring and the colouring in the centre of the cap.
Though I have complained about the lack of fungi this autumn on the soil sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) has had a great year. It took it a while to come out last autumn but it has been first past the post this time. It is one of our most common species, found on the surface of logs and fallen trees.
Looking back at this macro image of a bonnet mushroom (Mycena) I noticed the small shower of spores leaving the gills and flowing off towards the left. I’ve never seen a mushroom with a cap do this and certainly did not notice until I looked more closely later. To think one of those spores could end up producing a beautiful mushroom like this somewhere nearby.
Spore dropping mushrooms are known as basidiomycetes, pointing to the basidium which, in mushrooms with gills, is where the spores are produced. Alternatively ascomycetes are spore shooters and myxomycetes are slime moulds, which aren’t fungus at all. Still there? On Halloween you could be forgiven for thinking these were the fangs of a vampire mushroom. But vampires don’t exist, and it’s a mushroom. This is a species from the genus Amanita.
Though it can be disappointing if you’ve travelled a long way to see a big show of mushrooms in the woods and find nothing much, there is pleasure in finding a little mushroom down in the leaf litter. This little bonnet was sticking its head above a parapet made of beech leaf litter, hence the brown and faintly orange blur throughout the image.
Somewhat more incongruous and rock like was this earth ball in the genus Schleroderma.
No, I am not saying this is a mushroom. It’s the reproductive parts of a moss seeking to spread its spores across the woodland.
In the plant kingdom the bracken, such an important resource for people and their animals in the New Forest, was rainbow-like. The greens were so dark they almost appeared blue.
The New Forest is an ancient landscape that supports species of conservation importance across Europe. In England the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is far less common than it once was but Roydon Woods NNR is a good place to find the odd individual tree. I had never seen its autumn colour until this year.
Out of the woods I found this parasol mushroom hiding in the shelter of bramble. If this was a tabloid article there would be a band of European foragers coming round the corner there with sacks full of mushrooms. There was only a lady walking her dog.
One of the things to remember at this time of year is how quickly the light fades. On Halloween bats were hunting at 4 o’clock, ready for their upcoming hibernation. Is this why they are such a key part of Halloween’s iconography, because they hunt so close to dusk in autumn we come into contact with them, their shapes imprinted in our minds. I left with the shapes of New Forest ponies grazing the misty horizon of Balmers Lawn, imprinted upon my camera’s memory card.
See more in my New Forest archive