The Sussex Weald: between the seasons

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2021

Mid-August: the woods sit between seasons. Leaves are not yet turning, the soil is dry and the leaf litter brittle. Even so, mushrooms are pushing through. I turn off the hard track to cross over the ghyll that cuts through the woodland, one of many dammed further down for the ancient iron industries that hammered this landscape several centuries ago.

Today no such industry exists but the streams still flow. In fact, from this area of the High Weald, some of Sussex’s great rivers rise and head off on their respective journeys: the Arun, the Adur and the Ouse.

Sitting on the bank, I notice fungi on fallen wood but also in the soil. They are terracotta hedgehogs, mushrooms with spikes where the gills or pores are found on other species. They’re a delicious edible mushroom.

When the iron industries were at full pelt here some 400-500 years ago, there was immigration of skilled workers from France. They brought knowledge unavailable to iron workers here in Sussex, with some tensions developing with the local workforce. On 21st January 1556, ‘Peter’ a French collier was ‘cruelly murdered’ (Weir-Wilson, 2021: p.45).

I wonder if those French men and women picked hedgehogs here, a species that’s treated as a delicacy in France. The Belgian father of a friend of mine messaged me on social media when I posted a photo of these mushrooms:

‘Pied de mouton,’ he said. ‘Clean then blanch them for 2min. Drain and keep. Fry 2 shallots and 1 garlic in butter (or oil). Butter tastes better.’

Deeper into the woodland there are the first signs of heather beginning to flower. The birdsong has dwindled but the edges of the rides burst with flowers that are covered in insects. A broken and battered fritillary butterfly nectars on hemp agrimony flowers as if for the first time. I watch to see if a butterfly with so many pecks taken from its wings can even fly, but it does, high into the overcast sky.

Further along the ride hogweed has built a great white canopy. The droneflies – a honeybee mimic – drink nectar in their tens, fizzing as they switch from one umbel to another. That’s when I notice the long, drooping antennae of a longhorn beetle, doing the very same thing. I can’t take my eyes from it, as it clambers over the small inflorescences.

After walking along the endless forestry road, I slip back into the woodland to an area of birchy bog and broken beeches. It’s quiet and still in here. Unlike the final bursts of summer flowers on the open forest rides, autumn can be found among the birch trees.

First there is a bolete with its pores and cap that has begun to turn upwards, growing from a stump. There’s a Leccinum or birch bolete of some sort standing tall (for its kind) in the soil. There are Russulas yellow, red, green and purple. These hard to identify fungi are a mental bridge between summer and autumn. They are also a welcome meal for squirrels and whatever can get there first.

It’s a reminder that the seasons are not concrete. There is give and take, building blocks can come tumbling down. Seasonal signs come with species appearing, some that pass like ships in the night.

The Sussex Weald

#FungiFriday: the charcoal burners

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Brittlegill mushrooms

#FungiFriday 25th July 2020

It’s a great relief to be able to share some fungi from the Wood Wide Web this week. There has been steady rainfall in recent weeks which gave the sense that some summer shrooms might be ready to appear. At this time of year I’m looking for the early indicators of autumn’s fungal moment, which appear in the form of brittlegills or Russulas, in scientific language.

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A mixed secondary/ancient woodland in the Sussex High Weald

The fungi described this week are garnered from two walks in the woods of the Sussex Weald in West Sussex. The first walk was a short evening wander to a mixed woodland with signs of ancient woodland flowers like bluebell, but with lots of birch, hazel and some oak. It then pretty abruptly turned to pine, which happens quite often in the Weald because of the arrival of sandier soils where the Weald clay ends, and the prevalence of forestry.

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It was much more dry than I had hoped but mushrooms are tenacious things. This nicely illustrated a new fungal phrase I learned in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweet Grass (p.112 in the ebook). You can listen to an interesting podcast with the author about mosses.Tthe Native American language of the Anishinaabe describes “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” as ‘Puhpowee’. And so was this very small brittlegill pushing through the leaf litter.

I have never really tried to identify brittlegills to species level because they are so numerous and similar. I would guess this species is the charcoal burner. But I could be wrong about that.

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This is one of the red brittlegills from August 2018 in the Weald, something to expect in August through to September.

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It’s a very dim view due to the light but my companion found this fungus within a fungus. It’s a species of oysterling. You can see a black springtail (or maybe even a tick?) on the left hand side for scale.

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The second walk was in the afternoon at another Wealden woodland I am getting to know quite well. I recorded an Instagram story guided walk of this experience which you can see here. If you have the Gram.

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Again it was well-nibbled brittlegills that could be found. This is probably the work of a small mammal with some input from a slug. I’ve seen grey squirrels pick these mushrooms, and spin them around by the stem and nibble down the gills. That interested me because grey squirrels are an American species. Brittlegills are also found in North America, so perhaps they are just returning to their roots. Does belittle the idea that grey squirrels don’t belong in European landscapes, the evidently do. Yes, I know about red squirrels.

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I’m sure these species are not in any way appetising for the reader. This is probably one of the green brittlegills. It looks a bit ghoulish but I was pleased to find it. All these finds were just at the edge of footpaths.

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A common summer mushroom is rooting shank, one of the toughshanks. ‘Shank’ has a pretty dark meaning in modern language, particularly in London, but it’s an old name for leg. That’s where the names of red or greenshank come from in the bird world. Americans call similar species ‘yellowlegs’. I prefer the olde Englishe names.

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Rooting shank is quite an abrupt shroom, it just shows up where it likes. You can find it from now through to September from the woodland floor to stumps and buttresses of trees. This dream of a shroom was in the White Carpathian mountains in the borders of Czechia/Slovakia but I first saw it in urban south-east London.

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It’s not a fungus, but this dog vomit slime mould was a lovely find (believe it or not). This amazing video gives a much better explanation of what this slime mould is up to:

I have recently learned that slime moulds have memory!

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It was only after taking this photo of the slime mould’s birch log that I realised how much was happening. You can see the early stages of small polypore fungi moving in from the outer edge as the wood degrades. I think the greyish blobs next to the slime mould may be Lycogola species, sometimes known as wolf’s milk. Lyco means wolf. The puffballs, Lycoperdon mean ‘wolf’s fart’. Oh dear. And we don’t even have wolves in the UK anymore, just in Downing Street, LOL!

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

September ‘shrooms in the misty hills of Strathyre Forest

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Strathyre Forest, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland, September 2019

I’m in Strathyre Forest, a Forestry Scotland plantation in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The view of Loch Lubnaig comes and goes as the mist travels between the hills with the cars, lorries and motorbikes along the road down below. I’m sitting on a lump of rock, surrounded by the dead trunks of spruce trees, their successors rising below at their rotting toes. Around old spruce stumps felled by foresters, heather grows and flowers. Birch saplings and rosebay willowherb enjoy this pause in the blanket of monolithic trees.

Looking up for a moment, I’m given a shock by the sudden appearance of the loch and the surrounding hills. The mist has cleared and the shape of the loch’s marshy edges, fringed by the Lego shapes of a caravan park, where the river winds its way in, has appeared. A single spruce stands broken and dead, a mast of decay over Strathyre. A bird flies up, gradually picking a spot to perch on. It sits on the top branch and calls out.

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On the slow and drizzly ascent up to this point, I’ve spent most time on ground level photographing mushrooms. Under the dark monoculture of spruce red russulas are fruiting in profusion. I take photos using the camera’s timer so need to be really still so as not to disturb the camera, otherwise the picture will blur.

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The details are very fine and sometimes the focus is on a very small thing. This means stillness for me.

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My stillness meant birds flocking nearby came very close: goldcrests in their tens, with one within reach of my hand, then a young robin in a half-youth, half-adult plumage.

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It flew right at me and swooped away to land on a branch. It followed me back out onto the track and, perhaps, led me to a the biggest Boletus edulis I have seen. ‘Stick with me,’ I said, ‘and you’ll see mushrooms.’ I didn’t see the robin again after that.

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Away from the dark stands of plantations mosses, lichens and smaller mushrooms flourished at the buttresses of huge spruce and pine trees. One of the largest fly agarics I have ever seen opened like an upturned umbrella amidst its little brothers and sisters. There was light and life here that the close stocking together of trees does not allow.

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There I found lots of small mushrooms like deceivers, webcaps and plenty of others like milkcaps and lots of boletes sodden by days of rain. They reflect the attitude of a woman I heard in the pub last night as she discussed the wet forecast over the coming days. She would still be going out and enjoying her holiday. ‘It’s just water,’ she said.

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