I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.
Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.
The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.
At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.
The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.
Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.
Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.
Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.
This blog has now entered into its sixth month and the real-time fungi action hasn’t really happened, as this one will illustrate. Last week I went for an optimistic jaunt to my local ancient woodland/plantation/heathland to see if anything had popped up. I was astonished, not that there was very little to see, but at how dry the woodland was.
It should come as no surprise that I only found one fruiting body, growing out of a bit of deadwood, which would already have some moisture inside the decaying wood. My footsteps were so loud as I walked across the leaf litter. But then we have just had the sunniest May and one of the driest springs on record. Across the south of England warnings have been in place about the high risk of fire. Very disappointingly but not surprisingly, fires are ravaging heathlands as I type. At least some of these are because of visitor impact, either arson or things like disposable barbecues.
I went for a second mushroom hike – that’s how dedicated I am to this series – and found that an area of more wet oak woodland also had almost nothing appearing. I found so little that I didn’t even get my camera out and instead just used my average phone camera. Sign of the times. The best I could muster was the porcelain fungus above, growing from a beech log that had rolled into the dried out gill. Last winter I saw that stream overflowing.
It would be wrong to say that there is no fungi, because fungi is the life we do not see. This stick, looking a bit like a blue whale or a squid, is made green by green elf cup. This is the work of the mycelium, the true living part of the fungus.
In autumn small green fruiting bodies will appear as above. This was taken in October 2019.
If you need them, you can always rely on a bracket fungus in the dry season. This is artist’s or southern bracket, what most people will generally call by its Latin name Ganoderma.
I found these blushing brackets (I think) on the path, they were crisp and dry. This species begins pale, blushing red and then turning to black.
This is an area of woodland that is quite good for fungi, compared to the wider condition of the wood. It suffers from a huge amount of trampling. Please see what I’m about to say as objective comments on the physical state of this place, I am not attacking the land managers. Last autumn much of the holly in this area was cut and left. The aim was almost certainly to allow more light in to replenish the woodland floor. The brash, as it’s called, now covers where most of the fruiting bodies appear, and the holly will not break down soon enough for those fruiting bodies to appear again in perhaps the next five years.
In a previous job we would undertake thinning of holly and dead hedging to protect areas from trampling. The majority of pubicly accessible woodlands in southern England have fairly high levels of footfall, dog walking and the nitrogen enrichment that comes from dog waste. I mention this because I worked in a woodland which was only 20 acres in size but which had 100,000+ visitors annually, with probably around 50,000 dog visits. Holly was absolutely key to protecting soils from erosion and the creation of news paths, and protecting birds and other wildlife from disturbance.
Removing holly on this scale can result in the opening of areas to unintended impact where it could infact have the reverse effect desired. More light will come in to replenish the woodland floor, but more feet will come too and the soil will suffer, along with everything that needs it. Basically everything. I write this absolutely knowing that I provide some of those footsteps, but they are kept to desirelines and I do not have a dog that I allow to run free in these areas. Dog walkers will tell me that children have the same impact.
The holly creates a microclimate which in hot dry periods such as this, means that soil retains moisture and fungal fruiting bodies can do their thing, a thing that is a key part of the reason a woodland is there in the first place: reproduce, break down organic matter, feed the trees that need them, and recycle organic matter into new soils.
I wonder, do woodland managers ever think about fungi through anything beyond leaving dead trees to stand and logs to rot down on the ground? Does anyone consider the need for microclimates within woodland to ensure a mosaic of micro-habitats? Again, this is not an attack, just observations and pointers from my own experience.
When I began in woodland management (the account of one of my first days is the post visitors seem to read in their droves to on this website) I did not consider fungi as I do now. Seeing as fungi has such a crucial role to play in our woodlands, sooner or later we need to ensure that in dry spells such as these there are safeguards, like holly, to support fungi.