I spent a frosty olde morning at the foot of the South Downs where the Sussex Weald dissolves into the wetlands of the Arun Valley. I’m no early riser, so these experiences of frosty landscapes are to be treasured.
Everything was iced over.
Last year’s daisy heads were encrusted with ice, lit by the sun as it broke over the tree line.
Wiggonholt Common resides next to Pulborough Brooks the RSPB reserve. It’s a heathland nature reserve home to nightjar, woodlark and other uncommon birds. The views you can get of the heathland and its smattering of pines give it a look of real vulnerability. That’s about right though, as heathland in England is a rare habitat now.
The sun just began to break through the trees and light the trunks of these five pines.
Over on the other side of the common, the sun hadn’t arrived yet. The muddy paths were frozen still and the hoar frost decorated the birch trees growing at the heathland edge.
In the reserve proper, a single oak can be seen at the edge of the farmland where the Arun’s wetlands begin.
Pulborough is a good place to see communities of lichens like cladonia where they splash out across the green timber fencing. No chemicals are in the timber which means the lichens and other fungi proliferate.
The upturned chandeliers of hogweed flowerheads.
Spider silk hung from the twigs of the trees like silly string.
Yellow brain or witches butter, a fungus, looked like a proper tree-bogey.
The spiders webs that remained were laced with frost, as this L-shaped twig displayed so well.
Bracken looking somewhat birdlike, like the back of a golden eagle as it surveys the landscape. Or just some bracken.
The lagoons were glassily calm, marked by the winter calls of waders like redshank. I’m not very good with wading birds, I’m better in the woods. In the distance you will see the South Downs on a clearer day. The mist still sat there to hide them from lowland eyes, with temperatures as low as at least -3.
On my way in a couple had stood for minutes staring through binoculars at a song thrush on the path. I was waiting for them to look away so I could nip by, but it went on for so long I started to wonder if they were statues paid for by Swarovski. Their song thrush was enjoying a moment in the sun as I made my way back up to the exit. A worthy perch for this mighty songster.
Autumn 2015 in southern England began with a prolonged dry period reminiscent of 2011. This meant that a lot of fungus was late to fruit. Other than a September burst of honey fungus, there was little to see until the rain came and enriched the thirsty mycelia of British woods and meadows. Here is my year in mushrooms:
One of my favourite things to photograph is mushrooms, yet the act of closing the shutter is often only a small part of the experience. I can go looking for mushrooms and sometimes come away with very few photos. I have to walk until I find something, heading to the right place at the right time of year to find it. I know plenty of fungi enthusiasts who pick and cut mushrooms to identify them, a key process in understanding a species. As a photographer I see no reason for me to pick them. I’m much happier leaving the specimen where it is so someone else can come along and enjoy it, as short-lived as many fruiting bodies are. If it’s a fungal foray to raise awareness and celebrate mushrooms, picking them is great.
September to November is the right time to head out looking for the larger spreads of mushrooms, though they can be found all year round. I find enormous pleasure in that early autumn period when the moisture levels are right (fungal fruiting bodies are 90% water) and fungus abounds from every fallen tree, even the most barren of parkland funked out by funnels, inkcaps and fairy-rings.
I found a cep, Boletus edulis under a rhododendron bush in the New Forest in October. It didn’t quite match the images of bountiful porcinis (the Italian name for the cep, also known as the penny bun) but I still had no desire to take it home with me. Fungi engages people like very few wild plants or animals can, mainly because they are renowned for their edibility and their poison. From my understanding, mushroom picking is not as popular in England as it is in Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, France or Italy. Indeed, perhaps it is the Mediterranean influence over British culinary culture that has seen mushrooms become such a hot topic in debates about sustainable foraging. In Britain we lack the vast wooded landscapes of Transylvania, of the Tatras, Dolomites or Pyrenees. Perhaps our landscape is mycologically impoverished.
One thing that always interests me is a land manager’s attitude to foraging mushrooms. The City of London own many excellent nature reserves on the outskirts of the city and they have a no picking policy. Likewise many urban nature reserves discourage visitors from picking mushrooms. The Forestry Commission have a mushroom code, allowing only a certain weight of mushrooms to be picked and the clear message that only mature fruiting bodies should be plucked. It depends what your interest is, but as an observer I err on the side that fungi has an important role to play in an ecosystem and should largely be left alone, especially in urban nature reserves. At the same time I appreciate that it’s unproven that collecting mushrooms has any meaningful impact on the mycelium itself. As a conservationist, I tend to support the land manager’s picking only with permission, as difficult to enforce as it may be.
Fungi has a massive role in the health of woods. Species like beech, birch and oak have a strong dependency on fungi to provide them with nutrients and minerals that are otherwise impossible to retrieve from the soil. The mycelium of a fungus which fruits from the soil lives underground. The mycelium is made up of hyphae which extend through the soil, feeding on decomposing matter. The hyphae sheath the root hairs of a tree and a trade takes place between tree and fungus, a symbiotic relationship. The tree can delegate where the hyphae should extend in search of nutrients. The hyphae can then pass the nutrients into the tree via the root hairs. Water is often passed in return to the hyphae to nourish the mycelium and make the production of fruiting bodies (mushrooms) all the more possible. Experiments have been done to show that these mychorrizal relationships boost the growth of trees greatly. This is why the idea to dig up trees and replant them elsewhere to protect ancient woods is impossible. The soil is crucial. Trees are not everything.
Fungi has made me think very carefully about the camera equipment I use. The diversity of species means that there are an array of lenses and cameras you can use. There is no perfect set up. I use a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens to capture the smallest of mushrooms. Lying on my stomach in the New Forest revealed many incredible things hidden away that I would otherwise not have noticed. A macro lens, though often a costly investment, can open up a new appreciation for nature.
Some of my favourite species to photograph are bonnets (Mycena) and parachutes (Mirasmius). They are so incredibly tiny but so common, simply searching for them is an adventure. Again, the best place for these is woods with a thick layer of leaf litter, but they can also be found on mossy logs, and even on the end of sticks.
At the RSPB’s Blean Woods in Kent I crouched for many minutes, fearful of dogs weeing on me, to photograph this twig parachute. It measured barely a few millimetres across. I found it because I knew where to look. My knees ache still.
Not all fungi is especially beautiful or in beautiful places. Many mushrooms are in poor condition because their time in the limelight is very short and they are affected directly by weather and other environmental factors. Slugs eat them, flies mate on them, people step on them. I found this orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) on an embankment near Oxted, Kent outside a haulage company depot. The bank had been denuded of trees, their stumps poisoned. But the thing about nature is that it doesn’t care about how crap a place looks if the opportunity for propagation exists. This fungus looked more like some plastic debris half submerged in the ground.
Also not all of the beautiful fungus you find is actually fungus. One spot I return to each year, a dank log pile next to a path in some dark beech woodland, is lit up by Lycogola terrestre. This is no fungus but instead a slime mould. This is an extreme close up of one of the fruiting bodies which appears on a bed of moss in a very small area.
Another of fungi’s pleasures is an ability to surprise. Millions of spores are released by a single mushroom (30,000 million an hour by a mature bracket fungus) and so it is unsurprising to find mushrooms growing in the streets. At Camberwell Old Cemetery in south-London, four-year-old burial space has been a successful breeding ground for shaggy inkcap (Coprinus comatus). I used a 300mm telephoto lens to photograph the scene above. Seeing as the graves were newly-laid I didn’t want to intrude.
The best grasslands to find fungi are either ancient grasslands like Farthing Downs where I photographed this honey waxcap, or church yards. Waxcaps (Hygrocybe) are a strong indicator of the age of grassland. There are over 1000 species in the UK, their burst of colour in the winter doldrums add life to otherwise dormant meadows. The mild winter this year meant that waxcaps were fruiting alongside field scabious, knapweed and even yellow rattle on Farthing Downs.
In church yards the lack of grazing pressure and the ‘respectful’ management of the turf means that there are likely to be well established mycelia under the graveyard lawns. These are excellent hunting grounds for corals, Ramaria. The problem is they’re often so small it can be difficult to get a good image from a cumbersome DSLR. Instead I use my camera phone to try and get a closer look. It has a fancy in-built lens and can manual focus as if turning the focus ring of a DSLR lens by using the screen. The results were very pleasing.
The best places to find fungi are woods and meadows, generally those that are either ancient or relatively well established nature reserves which are sensitively managed. One of the new places I visited was Ashtead Common in Surrey. Ashtead Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National Nature Reserve (NNR), mainly designated for its ancient pollard oaks. This collection of old trees means the diversity of fungal and invertebrate life is very high. The City of London manage their reserves very well indeed and Ashtead Common proved to be one of the best early sites to visit.
RSPB’s Blean Woods NNR is a wonderful place for wildlife in general, not merely fungi. It is a vast network of woods that flank the city of Canterbury adding a level of sylvan mystery. Blean Woods is broken up into different habitats, with spots of heathland, birch and sweet chestnut coppice which provide vital nesting opportunities for nightingales and enough light when cut to support common cow wheat, the food plant of the endangered heath fritillary butterfly. In October the woodland floor was covered by a sea of black mushrooms that, I discovered later, were horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides).
It’s hard to say there is a best place to find mushrooms due to the transient way the fruiting bodies appear. My favourite place has to be the New Forest in Hampshire. The above image is of the Wildlife Trusts’ Roydon Woods NNR, an ancient broadleaved wood very close to Brockenhurst. The New Forest was probably like Ashtead Common in centuries past, with a structure more reminiscent of wood pasture (or savannah) where the trees were less close together and the grasslands were sunnier and luxurious. Roydon Woods has the feel of a landscape that is untouched by people, though such a thing does not exist today. It is possible to spend a day there and meet very few visitors but all manner of mushrooms.
First time I’ve heard this iconic and declining bird. Listen for the machine gun fire of drips and drops. Also the ‘whee-whee-wheeee’ wheezy call. There are a few warblers in the background which might confuse things.
The habitat you can see is coppiced birch trees with a few maturing sessile oaks in the background. Birch trees can be cut right down to the base on a cycle of between 7-12 years or so and they will grow back vigorously. This creates the dense vegetation that the naturally elusive – to the eyes – nightingale depends on to breed. Blean also holds one of England’s few colonies of heath fritillary butterfly which will benefit from the sunlight reaped by coppicing.
Bar a few cars passing us on the approach road there is no one here. And but for the track itself, the birch, heather and lichen covered Scot’s pine exude a sense of ancient wilderness. There are no human trails through the heather and soggy mounds of moss, only a few signs of other mammals escaping into the wilder regions. Some odourless spraint we discover at our feet intrigues us: pine marten, otter? I don’t know. A bit further back, we watched a red squirrel hug the trunk of a pine, climbing a branch higher as we took steps closer. The images we’re fed in England of confiding creatures doesn’t match the shy nature of these Scottish animals.
The sound of chainsaws is moaning, unending. It may be work that will help these famously mistreated woodlands, cleared with such fervour by the English, but the noise is irritating. We turn into Loch Garten and our minds to the capercaillie, a member of the grouse family which is renowned for the defence of its territory to all comers. Our host in Aviemore showed us a photograph in the guesthouse lobby of a celebrity capercaillie that entertained the masses in the 1990s. Anyone who passed the field bordering the bird’s pinewood territory would be met with a fanfare of its black tail feathers, not unlike a peacock. The framed photograph in the lobby showed that the bird lacked a tail feather. This led to uproar locally – someone’s dog had attached the bird and it had lost its feather. That, however, proved to be untrue. A local farmer had put out feed for his horse in the field next to the capercaillie’s dwelling, and the bird had begun to join the horse for dinner. Eventually, the horse grew tired of the charismatic grouse eating its food and bit it on the arse. Mystery solved. There is no chance of us witnessing such scenes today at Loch Garten.
But what’s to be enjoyed in the absence of the Cairngorms’ other celebrity birds, the ospreys that travel here from Africa to breed? The Loch itself. The roots of mature pines spread freely from the soil as the opening of the Loch appears before us: the gentle movement of its surface, the image of Craiggowrie in the distance, the silence overcomes us. How peculiar that silence can feel louder than chainsaws. Nan Shepherd wrote about it up in the mountains but here it is lapping on the water at just a few hundred feet. The movement of the water’s edge does not end there, it moves across the sandy soil, into the pine forest, rippling through me. From the bordering pine forest comes the cheerful trill of a crested tit, it sounds like the only thing on earth. The pines on the waterfront have beard lichens snagged in in their branches, so much like the facial hair of miniature woodland elders, dark green and bright blue. The gnarled dead wood of the pine holds their ghastly expressions. We turn on our heels and head for the depths of Abernethy Forest.