Cep-tember: reflections on foraging in England 🍄

In the early weeks of September, the first autumn mushroom boom hit. This was after a number of stormy downpours finally gave up some of the long-held rain to the land below, where us humans are most of the time.

I visited a local Sussex woodland in the second week of the month and was astonished by the change the rain had brought about. I have never seen so many blusher mushrooms (Amanita), which were honestly as common as muck, as the English saying goes. It’s also the start of the Russula season, with the first explosion of the brittle-gilled, uniformly white mushrooms. They are spectacularly beautiful to look at before the squirrels, deer, or slugs get to them, as they should.

Blusher mushroom

I was on my way out of the woodland when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a perfect mushroom. It was perfect in appearance and is thought of as perfect for its culinary quality. At the edge of the shady path, under the branches of a young holly tree, was a cep (Boletus edulis).

Recently I’ve read a book about mushrooms and foraging that really got me thinking. It challenged my perceptions of whether we have it wrong about mushroom foraging in this country in terms of tone, and whether everything I thought I knew about what a woodland’s state would mean for its fungi.

More on that in a bit. You may have guessed that I picked this mushroom, took it home and ate it. I lived to tell the tale and it was indeed very tasty.

In recent weeks there have been Instagram posts showcasing hundreds of ceps in France and Russia and it’s made me realise something. One of the best times to pick edible mushrooms is in August and September before leaf fall and when there is still drier weather to be had. Wet weather also allows detritivores like slugs to feast on mushrooms.

Cep (Boletus edulis) also known as penny bun or porcini

Ceps in particular seem to be more likely to be free of decay and of insect encroachment into the stipe in drier months, which forms the core of the mushroom’s edibility.

For the past ten years I have remained fairly sniffy about mushroom foraging and only really ever eat wild mushrooms as a one off to see what they’re like. Part of this comes from working as a woodland warden for 6 years in an ecologically sensitive but hugely popular nature reserve. In my view and experience, I still don’t think foraging is sustainable in small city woodlands where the impact of footfall can degrade a habitat’s viability. There is also the fundamental fact that access to certain places has its controls, which are legal requirements in some cases. It’s also a sad reflection of the state of the English landscape which is said to be one of the most nature-depleted in the world.

Reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing made me appreciate just how nature-depleted we are in the UK, and how this is a cultural as well as ecological issue. I’ve written before about mushrooms in the Slavic world. Mushrooms seem like such a rare thing now that their picking is treated in numerous places as an offence, and this still with no solid evidence that picking mushrooms reduces an ecosystem’s viability or biodiversity. It does seem to come down more to commercial ‘theft’ than anything else, which you can understand if ‘organised’ groups are technically asset-stripping public lands. Mushrooms like ceps have a market value, something Tsing covers in greater detail.

As mentioned earlier, in small urban woodlands I think large-scale foraging could be harmful in that it can introduce lots of feet to healthy areas of woodland soil and seal it up, blocking the vital movements of gases like oxygen and CO2, fungal and invertebrate life, resulting in tree death. Soil is, after all, a living thing. It’s another reminder that woodlands with high visitor numbers do need to be managed for their long-term health.

Bradfield Woods

But disturbance of a different variety may not be so bad. It may even help to promote mushroom dispersal. Tsing’s book shows that disturbed landscapes seem somehow ‘better’ for matsutake in America, with landscapes damaged to a degree by industry actually being reawakened to different communities of fungal life. We are of course talking about wooded landscapes of much greater scale than most that are found in the UK. That’s a key element to consider.

Two years ago I visited Bradfield Woods, a managed coppice-with-standards woodland in Suffolk that also happens to be a National Nature Reserve. It was absolutely chock-full with boletes and many other species of fungi, including stinkhorns! Bradfield Woods is coppiced regularly for its hazel wood and its mature oaks are felled for timber (hazel = coppice, oak = standards). It was one of the most fungally-rich woodlands I have ever visited in central or southern England, again this was early September.

The management by the Wildlife Trust at Bradfield Woods is sensitive and sustainable, unlike most plantations where an entire woodland is effectively created from scratch (or from an ancient woodland, similar to how rainforest turns over to palm oil monoculture) and managed aggressively with large machinery that damages the topsoil. Then again, Bradfield Woods is not needing to produce toilet paper and other goodies for 60million people. It’s important to remember that that’s why plantations are managed as they are, for products we all depend on in our daily lives. This is probably an issue of globalisation.

The Mushroom at the End of the World has a lot to say about globalisation, focusing on the matsutske mushroom, one of the most economically important species in the world. Tsing covers the (human) immigrant communities in Oregan, USA and how their livelihoods depend on picking. It reminded me that the anti-foraging arguments in a lot of the UK media are along xenophobic lines, which Tsing does cover in regard to white supremacy in the United States. One English video lingers in my mind, of East Asian women picking mushrooms in a London park and being accosted by a local volunteer who is also filming them. Without pretending to be an expert or to define an entire region of diverse peoples, picking mushrooms appears to be a perfectly normal activity in East Asian countries.

Tawny grisette

There is also the interchangeability of the phrases ‘gang of foragers’ with ‘gangs of foreigners’, which I very embarrasingly said by accident in challenging the very concept at a guided walk once. This kind of language is far more easily accessed in certain British newspapers, which are hostile to immigration and refugees more generally and seek material to boost their propaganda. As you may have seen, a lot of people continue to express racist or xenophobic views in 2022, and sometimes people don’t realise how those ideas can surface in the most unlikely of places – a love of the nature deemed to be ‘ours’ and under ‘our protection’. These are issues and messages here that need to be considered carefully.

Perhaps the fears about foraging harm wildlife because our disconnection from these places has contributed to ecological decline. Perhaps it’s also that we need to accept our failure of stewardship – have we done enough to champion the positive use of our woods and their wildlife or have we not broached the topic meaningfully enough out of fear?

The last few days has shown that UK conservation charities have had enough of the Government’s total failure to secure environmental protections, at a time when access to nature and a rich ecological environment is crucial to societal wellbeing.

If sustainable foraging can allow people to connect more deeply with suitable green spaces, and to understand their ecology and improve their management, surely that has to be a good thing?

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

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The cheeseburger fungus 🍔

It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway.

That was hammered home with a tweet I saw recently of someone who had replaced the verge outside their house (not their verge) with plastic grass. The verge was also home to a tree, which will have probably suffocated due to lack of air through the soil and only being able to access water underground.

That said, it has been known for tree roots to seek out water over long distances. Some trees will cross underneath roads to quench their thirst. This becomes increasingly more understandable when you learn that a tree’s roots often extend twice the distance of their height in length under the soil.

Weakened trees on city streets almost always end up with wounds that they struggle to heal, leaving openings for fungi to invade. It is perfectly normal and natural for fungi to grow on trees, and many of them are beneficial. They can help to remove excess dead wood and also act collaboratively with a tree’s roots to trade nutrients.

Some fungi will cause a tree to fail mechanically or biologically. Some will just look like a massive vegan cheeseburger attached to a tree.

I encountered this bracket fungus on a street tree in south London recently and was amazed by the yellow spider silk and webbing. This is the product of the yellow spores the fungus evidently produces, so miniscule that they attach to the sticky silk and turn it fast-food cheese yellow.

The spider that made this web must really be confused by this situation. Perhaps it’s happy with the random redecoration that’s occurred. I wouldn’t mind, it’s actually the colour of my bedroom wall!

I am fairly certain this is Inonotus hispidus or shaggy bracket. It’s a surprise to see it at eye level, whereas it’s usually very high in a tree. You may have seen it as a black fungus sitting at the bottom of a tree trunk. By that point it has finished fruiting and has fallen from its perch. It’s usually on ash but on this occasion was on a whitebeam (Sorbus). If you go walking in an ash woodland at this time of year do take a moment to crane your neck and see if you can spot one up there in its shaggy glory before it comes crashing down to earth.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

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The fungus capable of mind-control 🍄

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

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The cheeseburger fungus 🍔

It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway. That… Continue reading The cheeseburger fungus 🍔

The homefires burn in the mountains of Mayo 🇮🇪

Here are some landscape images from a March visit to Mayo which I’ve been posting a bit of recently. This landscape fascinates me in many ways: the cultural history (of which my family has links), the ecology and geology.

My family’s cottage is located near a mountain range that would probably be classified as hills in the UK, but their Irish name translates as Wintry Mountain (Slieve Gamph). The English version is the Ox Mountains. It was said that people once lived in these hills – granite, heather and peat bog – in simple stone cottages until the famine. I haven’t managed to locate anything resembling a disused cottage there as yet, but the wider landscape is littered with megalithic tombs, stone circles and other significant archaeology.

We arrived in Mayo to find the mountain burnt across a mile or more. This beautiful landscape with its rare plants, bog habitats, feral goats and moorland nesting birds, was decimated. We asked local people – who started it? One man said it could have been a farmer who just wanted a bit more grass, another woman said it was someone just “lighting a match”. Whoever it was, the authorities are not happy and it made plenty of news out this way. It was also an issue in Wicklow and Kerry.

The mountains had not been completely charred by the fire, with plenty of plants having survived, though it had spread to areas I had never seen affected before. Our local neighbour said she had never seen so many fires as in recent years. Climate change is no doubt making these moorlands and their mountains of bracken more vulnerable to wildfires (or otherwise) but the issue still remains one of misguided land management, as well as pure arson.

Having worked in the management of publicly accessible green spaces I can tell you there is a minority everywhere who want to just burn stuff for the fun of it.

In 2013 I wrote a piece about visiting Mayo while my grandfather was in a nursing home. He passed away 2 years later from dementia. Back then we arrived to fires burning close to the cottage, like something from a movie. I remember a radio report saying there were gorse fires simply caused by direct sunlight and dry weather. You can read that here.

Thanks for reading.

More from Ireland

The bluebell trespass

One of the most beautiful sights in English nature is a Low Weald bluebell woodland. The shimmer of blue in the evening sun pocked by the white stars of wood anemones. These are my favourite evenings of the year, the promise of spring but still delivering on all you had hoped to see in the darker months. Summer just can’t match this.


This square of woodland in the Sussex Low Weald was not officially open access, but we kept to the paths and no bluebells were harmed in the making of these images. There is a lot of conversation about access to the countryside at the moment in England, and how power and privilege resonates in the landscape. These are important conversations and the issues are complex.

It was my first visit to this woodland, much like another picturesque bluebell wood a little further north that has now been completely closed to public visitors. A look at the maps shows how a larger landscape of natural woodland had been chomped up by farmers to become fields, leaving this section completely isolated. That will have occurred over the past few hundred years.

However, it had all the key indicators of ancient woodland, as seen here: English bluebell, wood anemones, greater stitchwort, dog’s mercury, wood spurge, and all under a shrub layer of hazel and high canopy of oak.

This kind of habitat is very much human-made, with centuries of coppicing hazel and felling of oak standards. That doesn’t stop it from being good for wildlife, coppice woodland is one of the richer landscapes in the UK.

Thanks for reading

The Sussex Weald

A trip to Wild Nephin National Park 🇮🇪

In March I visited Wild Nephin National Park at the Atlantic edge of Ireland, in Co. Mayo. I thought it was called Ballycroy National Park, but the name seems to have been updated.

The mountains here are the Nephin Beg range. There’s a great visitor centre here and a brilliant cafe run by a very friendly couple. I’d seen these mountains from afar for years but this was my first time in the National Park.

The National Park itself is said to be home to golden eagles, which I hadn’t realised were present in Ireland. It’s also where one of Europe’s largest blanket bogs resides, a special type in this region known as Atlantic blanket bog. Great name!

If you want to read more about this landscape I would recommend Sean Lysaght’s book Wild Nephin. Copies are available in the cafe also. I really recommend it, also Sean’s poems.

I’ve tried to work out the names of the mountains but may have some of them wrong. I’d welcome corrections in the comments and will amend.

Here are some images I took during our visit to Ballycroy:

Nephin mountain
Scree and stream bed on Nephin
Mountain I don’t know the name of with cottage for scale
Croagh Patrick, possibly the most famous mountain in Ireland
Mulranny view towards mountains
Sheep with lambs
View of Croagh Patrick from Mulranny, across Clew Bay
Cleggan Mountain Trail (boardwalk just visible on the left) and view towards Achill
Cnoc Leitreach (Owenduff Hill) I think!
The Ballycroy visitor centre boardwalk loop
Sunny day in Ballycroy
Gorse in flower
Inishbiggle mountain (I think)
Views towards Nephin Beg mountain range
Local farming in Ballycroy
Abandoned farmstead near Ballycroy. Note the succession of rushes, grasses and gorse onto the green of the ‘improved’ grassland.

Thanks for reading.

Is it safe to come out yet? 👀

Two years ago I began posting a weekly macro blog, mainly because of the UK Covid-19 lockdowns, which only allowed us to leave the house once a day. I kept to those rules to protect other people, ultimately sacrificing much of the time I would have been able to spend with my Dad in the final two years of his life. If you’re in the UK and in touch with current affairs, I think you probably know why I’m making that point. During the lockdowns I spent a lot of time in my garden, in a house we had only just moved into, and relished the opportunity to get to know the tiny lives being lived in the small space of my back garden.

I mention all this because I now have nothing like the same amount of time to spend outdoors in the garden. So what time I do have out there is precious. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is that I am one of those privileged people who is able to work flexibly and I can visit my garden on breaks. I’m yet to receive a passive aggressive post-it note from a bespectacled Somerset MP.

I popped out one morning recently and found a neighbour had returned, though they were rather nervous about leaving their own quarters. For many people, it’s a similar issue.

Last June I got some of my best ever macro photos as I leant over my fence, straining my lower back to capture photos of a fencepost jumping spider. I was pleased to see this beautiful spider in the same spot once again this year. It was rather timid and if I got too close it would dart back in. The photo above has been edited to bring out the shadows so you can see those beautiful cartoon eyes. I think this species is mainly interested in hunting the flies and other winged-insects that bask on the hot spot of the fence top.

The spider did venture out on occasion, but after a couple of minutes I felt it was best to leave it to do its work, what is of course key to its survival.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

A glimpse of Mayo’s dark skies 🌌

Mayo is Ireland’s only dark sky park, internationally recognised for its low levels of light pollution. Basically it’s super starry. Here are a few images from the front door (the only door) of my family’s cottage in northern Mayo.

Tree lungwort lichen in western Ireland 🍄

Since 2013 I have been visiting a small area of ‘Celtic rainforest’ I know in Co. Mayo in Western Ireland. It’s hard to find much ecologically significant woodland in Mayo, a place of vast peat bogs, wetlands and where the woodlands are largely low diversity plantations of spruce and larch. Nine years ago I found one woodland on the map and asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind dropping me off there. In March 2022 I had about 30 minutes to check in on this real gem of an oak woodland.

I don’t want to give the name of the woodland openly because it is incredibly sensitive and is already experiencing the impacts of anti-social behaviour (fires, litter, human waste… not that you would head straight there to mess it up!) but if you want to know the details you can contact me via email for info (unlockinglandscapes@gmail.com). It’s one of the special Western Atlantic oak woodlands which the western edges of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are known for. This woodland is rich in ancient woodland plantlife and is also good for fungi, as you might expect due to the long-term stability of ancient woodland species communities.

Upon entering I spotted the little red traffic light of a scarlet elf cup in among the moss. This is a species which thrives in damp and shady woodlands near water.

The woodland here is close to a large lough so it is never short on moisture.

I was astonished to find this naturally-occuring terrarium on the woodland floor. Someone had chucked a jar here and the mosses and other plantlife had colonised it.

Anyway, I was here to check for an uncommon lichen in the UK & Ireland – tree lungwort, Lobaria pulmonaria. It’s a massive lichen that can be found in these ‘Celtic rainforest‘ habitats. The Woodland Trust say it’s an incredibly rare habitat.

After a few minutes of searching where I had found it back in 2017, I saw this. It is a seriously impressive species.

I was so pleased to find the tree lungwort again. It’s unlike similar organisms we find in the UK. It makes far more of its fungal elements than other lichens through its size and spread. Remember: in lichens, fungi provide the physical structure and fruiting mechanism (usually a cup-style spore shooter), while the cyanobacteria or algae are able to photosynthesise and harvest energy from the sunlight.

The oak trees in Celtic rainforest provide habitat for plants as well as lichen. There are often modest ivy vines trailing the trunk, as well as other epiphytes such as ferns and mosses:

Another thing I noticed was oaks leafing on the 31st March. This may be the earliest I have ever seen oak come into leaf, but the race between ash and oak is certainly a contest. The old saying of “If the oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash, if the ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak” doesn’t quite play out from my experience. The very warm March we’ve experienced in the British Isles has possibly more of a role to play in this than traditional benign weather or climate patterns might.

One thing I learned from observing the other communities of tree lungwort were that the lichen seemed to prefer younger trees. I didn’t observe any on more mature specimens of oak. There didn’t appear to be a lot of oak regenaration but then again there was no danger of overgrazing due to the quite isolated nature of the woodland, its lough-side location and livestock being nowhere near.

Another lichen I observed was one of the pixie cup lichens in the Cladonia group but I couldn’t tell you the exact species.

There were many candidates for #StickOfTheWeek, so much so that there wasn’t even much of a stick to look at!

Thanks for reading

Further fungi

Stonehenge: lumps and bumps in the landscape

In September 2021, on the way back from a visit to Dorset, I managed what birders call a ‘life-tick’. This wasn’t a case of dropping in on a rare bird to add it to a life sightings list. No, instead it was visiting the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge for the first time in my life.

Many people in southern England will have witnessed Stonehenge’s standing stones as they crawl along the A303 in Wiltshire. But how many notice the many burial mounds?

How many people knew (maybe before they watched The Dig on Netflix) that the stones were a minuscule part of the site’s wider significance? That the site itself is a vast burial ground, with lumps and bumps (as seen above) dotted throughout this part of Salisbury Plain?

I am no expert on burial mounds, more like someone who knows a couple of garden birds when they see them. Burial mounds have different names, often they are classed as a type of earthwork or tumulus. There are bowl barrows, some of which are huge mounds of earth, built up upon the bodies and significant objects or possessions of a person or family. The South Downs have been described as one long ancient graveyard, with mounds evident across much of the 100 mile long ridge. In places like the South Downs and Salisbury Plain, the freshly turned chalk would have stood out for miles in these vast, wide open landscapes. It’s a bit like those of you with white Range Rovers or Teslas sitting on your paved-over front garden in Kensington. It’s a status symbol.

When I drive along the A303, perhaps once a year when heading south-west, I ask my fellow passenger(s) to play spot-the-burial-mound in the surrounding fields while I focus on the road. Stonehenge itself is not only special for its stones, it’s about the wider expanse, either side of the A303.

This place is important to many people, even beyond the tourists like me passing through the turnstiles at the new visitor centre. Along a lane that cuts across the A303, people had camped in mini-buses with flags flying high.

I don’t know why they were there, but the scale of the transport shows it wasn’t a stop of for a quick cup of tea.

One thing I loved about the stones was the life that had developed on them. Here you can see the growths of lichen and smatterings of algae.

Far more entertaining and animated than the lichens were the flocks of starlings sheltering from the gusts of wind (although it was actually quite hot) in the crevices of the stones.

Their behaviour was autumnal, gathering into groups, whistling and clicking. They will have been in this place when the stones were constructed thousands of years ago. Their numbers must have been incredible.

In addition to the starlings were rooks, a crow of ploughed land with a bill that looks to have been dipped in chalk. They will no doubt have found things to scavenge from the millions of visitors who make it to Stonehenge every year. The rook seen here was perched where a stone once was, with the tenon-type part of the rock used to secure the top stones in place when originally constructed.

Thanks for reading.