The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.

I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.

The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.

Arun at North Stoke, page 71 Book about the Highways and Byways of Co. Sussex, England

Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.

Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.

The churchspire of Bury village can be seen among the trees on the banks of the Arun (2020)

The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.

The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.

It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.

A lone hawthorn on the Downs with the Arun snaking away in the background (2019).
Much of its floodplain has become grazing land

The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).

The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,

Your Britain – fight for it now (Imperial War Museum/Frank Newbould 1942) – this is not geographically accurate, with the landscape being a splicing together of different parts of the Downs for artistic effect

In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.

The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.

Looking east along the Downs from Chantry Hill, June 2020

In reality it is far more complicated than that.

Thanks for reading.

The South Downs

The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

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 lackey in the Cuckmere valley ๐Ÿ›

I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.

Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.

The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.

The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.

We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.

On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.

A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.

Thanks for reading.

More macro (my tags/categories seem to be broken at the moment – will try and fix them!)

The South Downs

Early spider orchids ๐Ÿ•ท๏ธ

Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).

In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.

A landscape raked by stone, bone and iron

I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.

These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.

They are truly beautiful.

During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.

She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.

Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.

This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.

There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).

A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.

Thanks to Phillippa, Jan, James and Monica.

And thanks for reading.

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The South Downs

Early spring at Petworth Park

A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.

The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: Pulborrrough Brooks ๐Ÿฅถ

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.

Thanks for reading

The Sussex Weald

Macro ๐Ÿ“ท: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: a summer visit to Ebernoe Common

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Fungi Friday 7th August 2020

Since March I have owned a bicycle. Living in Sussex, you are largely dependent on a car to get around. My bike is the first one I’ve ever owned, and I’m in my 30s. Growing up on a hill, it never seemed like something I’d need. For the first time this year I drove further to visit a special nature reserve in the Low Weald of Sussex: Ebernoe Common.

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Ebernoe is a National Nature Reserve belonging to Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT). It’s a very special place for bats and is rich in all kinds of fungi. It’s ancient wood pasture, with large meadowy areas dotted with trees. SWT don’t allow foraging on their nature reserves (from what I know) and so people should respect that. When I visited, the woods were very dry, as they were in the Wealden woods reachable by bike near where I live.

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There were some mushrooms on the ground but most had dried up and split in the heat. I think the one above (a phone pic) is something like rooting shank. If it doesn’t make it past my phone, that’s a sign it’s not in great shape.

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Something I wish I’d spent more time looking at and getting more than a phone pic of, was this fungal map of the world. This is a beech tree that had fallen over a footpath and been chainsawed across to re-open the path. This fungal effect on timber is quite desireable commerically, where it’s known as ‘spalting’. What you can see here are the zones of a fungal mycelium within the heartwood of the dead tree. It looks like a map of a country, perhaps the north-eastern corner of a nation like Sweden with its archipeligos. I’ve heard these patches referred to as ‘war zones’. They are certainly competing for territory.

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Like so many weeks over the summer stages of this blog, I found lots of bracket fungi. These were almost only Ganoderma species. The fruiting bodies were sticking out of the old rootplates of fallen trees like trainers or ‘sneakers’.

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I visited a heroic veteran beech tree that holds a gigantic bracket of the same species as above. This is a tree I visit in the autumn, when a huge number of species can be seen on it, as below:

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Here I can see giant polypore on the bottom left, honey fungus in the middle and lots of Ganoderma on different levels. The softening of the tree’s remaining wood will provide habitat for a huge range of invertebrates and other life. This is a habitat we have lost so much of over the past 70 years, as woods have been tidied and aforested for commercial production. That seems to be changing.

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Beyond fungi, into a different species group but one that behaves in a similar fashion, I found a few slime moulds. This patch was splotched like someone’s old melted sandwich on a mossy log. Slime moulds are not in the fungal family. I learned recently that fungi were only separated from plants in 1969! Well done humans, literally a billion years later.

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Here was an older specimen of the previous slime mould. It had been broken into by something that was probably eating it. It looks like a meringue, to my eyes. Also looks like an eye.

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It was nice to head out further afield to seek out some ‘shrooms. But I have become so used to cycling or walking to the woods that it felt weird driving. It’s not lost on me that nitrogen dioxide, emitted by cars, is driving declines in fungal life as it alters the chemical make up of the soil. This is also impacted by air travel. I will make an effort to keep my emissions as low as possible. In terms of finding fungi, one of the problems with driving is that you cut yourself off completely from the world. When you’re walking or cycling somewhere, you’re immersed. I think I know what I prefer.

Thanks for reading.

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Macro Monday: back to chalk

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Macro Monday 7th May 2020

I was on lockdown leave last week (the holiday you booked last year but aren’t able to go on, not that I’m complaining). One morning I was reading a book on the sofa – Horizons by Barry Lopez, which I haved really enjoyed – and I heard what sounded like very a noisy daddy longlegs entering the room. I looked up and a damselfly was resting on the wall. I ran to get my little camera and took some photos.

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It was a female azure damselfly, the second damselfly I’ve recorded in my garden this year. I helped it onto the tip of my finger and took it over to the window. It flew away and landed on the curtains. The light was beautiful and soft, helped by the curtains. In the end it slipped off into the sunny garden.

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Out there some hyper-goth-punk has taken residence in the raspberry patch. Really I think it’s a vapourer moth. This one will be worth watching. I’ll keep you posted. It’s a nightmare to photograph.

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The cranesbills are flowering now in my garden and they’re a good place to find spiders. They’re a bad place to find spiders if you’re an aphid.

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I’m not sure what kind of spider this is (there is a new book coming out in September that I’m waiting for) but I would guess it was a crab spider. Please let me know if you do.

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Spiders do make you realise how much of a nightmare they would be to sit next to on the bus.

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Ok, I know what you’re thinking: you have a nice garden. You’re too kind, but it’s not mine. This is the South Downs National Park. I visited the South Downs for the first time in three months with one aim in mind: macro.

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At one point this year I didn’t think I’d have the chance to visit the chalk downs. I was prepared for that, because I think the health of the wider populace is more important than getting to look at some flowers in a field, or a wood, whether or not they’re on my dad’s farm in Northumberland. Needless to say I drove the 30 minutes to the South Downs to check my eyesight. I believe I acted reasonably.

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Turns out my eyesight is good but not this good. To really get close to this chalk milkwort I need a macro lens. Lucky for me, I had one! The flowers of this very small plant look to me a bit like spiders, too.

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This rock rose was growing in amongst some of the drier grasslands, starved of decent rain for a long while. May was the sunniest on record. We need rain, so bad.

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It was a windy day up on the Downs and butterflies were having a tricky time of it. To be honest, I can’t remember it not being windy on the Downs…

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I’m fairly certain this is a brown argus, which I hit the deck to get closer to. It was having a wild thyme. I also saw brimstone, common blue and small heath.

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On the lane I picked up this cinnabar moth, a species which is lives on ragwort. They develop from the iconic orange and black caterpillars that you can find on a-plant-so-hated-someone-made-a-website-to-defend-it. In macro terms of keeping beautiful insects distracted long enough to have their picture taken, ragwort has been good to me. I’m a fan.

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You may know that chalk formed about 65 million years ago from the shells of molloscs in an ocean. That ocean is gone but I found a tiny piece of chalk in one of the dusty, dry exposed areas of the grasslands. I think the black spots may be the early development of a lichen. I thought it was so beautiful as an object, like a piece of cave art, its canvas so many millions of years in the making.

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This photo was taken with my macro lens. It was lovely to see a skylark again.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: looking back on a mushroom classic

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Fungi Friday 3rd April 2020 (or Friday 9th November 2019)

I can’t get out to anywhere that has mushrooms to photograph and we’re also experiencing something of a dry spell in Sussex. That means that this week I’m posting about my fungal highlight of autumn 2019, which took place on Friday 9th November. Consider this a bit of a sporting or cinematic classics TV show, until we’re allowed to venture further and any spring rain arrives. The inconsistent nature of mushroom fruiting bodies means I may have to wheel this out again to keep it going every week.

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It was mid-November with autumn at its peak. The colours of the beech trees were at their most explosive. In the woodlands of the Sussex Weald, there were millions of mushrooms. They seemed to be under every footstep and fruiting from every fallen tree.

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It was clear it was peak mushroom time. The bonnets were out en masse and many leaves were still on the trees. I have come to think that fungi hunting is so much easier before the leaves fall. The leaf litter created by oak and beech is very hefty.

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I would also consider using hazel as an indicator. When those leaves start to yellow and fall, you know it’s going to be more difficult. Winter is on its way.

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Bonnets are some of the best fungi to photograph because they’re often elevated on the limbs of fallen trees, meaning you don’t have to scrabble around on the ground. It’s also a very nice height for a tripod. A tripod gives you the steadiness to use slow shutter speeds which makes it so much easier to take pics in a dark woodland in autumn. Also, mushrooms don’t move!

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What I am looking for in general is a mushroom that can be isolated. A macro lens gives a very shallow depth of field, which means that the focus is thin and the background easily blurs. This kind of thing is perfect. I don’t focus stack images (a complex process of threading images together which have different stages of focus) but this would look really good with every aspect in focus.

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This is also what’s so nice about elevated fungi. You can play around and get some nice bokeh (the circles in the background). This is created by daylight flooding through the leaves – can you see the wash of green? I used a small LED light to light the gills of the bonnets. They look almost like paper or plastic to me. The idea also occurred to me that the white bokeh circles look like the mushrooms, too.

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These are probably more bonnets. Again, taking a photo of the gills underneath can create a really beautiful effect. I could have pulled the bit of dead wood off to reveal the other mushroom but I fundamentally disagree with damaging habitats for the sake of a photo.

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A species I learned last year was buttercap (or at least I think I have). This is said to be a common species. I like the fairytale shape of the stipe as it bulges at the base.

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The woodland was entering peak autumn colour. These beech leaves still held traces of their chlorophyll.

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It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I can’t tell you how much a woodland stream adds to the overall experience!

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With what is approaching a lake, you’re spoiled rotten.

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Back to the shrooms. I found probably the biggest fungus I have ever seen, though you could argue it is several fruiting bodies fused together. I even added some in-photo text to help explain the situation to you. Very advanced. This is a bracket fungus that looks more like a ray. It’s probably artist’s bracket, a Ganoderma species. Below it you can see some smaller mushrooms, these are all deceivers. They were just about covering the entire area here. It was almost impossible not to step on one. By the way don’t worry that’s my hand not a mushroom burglar’s.

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All in all this was my peak mushroom experience in autumn 2019.

Thanks for reading.

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