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In search of wild mushrooms in Lancashire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 November 2018

The iconic fly agaric by Alan Price

The iconic fly agaric by Alan Price

Alan Price

With carpets of damp fallen leaves and rotting deadwood covering woodlands, autumn is the time when fungi of all shapes and sizes thrive. The Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Molly Toal explores the mushroom kingdom.

One of our most common fungi candlesnuff by Ted StevensOne of our most common fungi candlesnuff by Ted Stevens

If you go down to the woods today you’ll find fungi everywhere. Poking out from under your feet, protruding from tree trunks and even in water, the fungal world comes alive in autumn, and one of the best places to explore it in Lancashire is Mere Sands Wood in Rufford.

This beautiful reserve is made up of broad-leaved and coniferous woodlands, meadows and lakes. It boasts a huge variety of wildlife and is a great place to visit all year round, with rarities such as red squirrels, water voles and willow tits making their home on site. In autumn, though, Mere Sands Wood is known for its flourishing fungi.

Fungi are neither plants nor animals, instead they belong to their own kingdom. The mushrooms (or toadstools) that we see are actually the fleshy, fruit-like bodies produced by fungi to release spores for reproduction. Fungi get their nutrients and energy from organic matter, rather than photosynthesis like plants. Below the surface, the rest of the fungus is made up of fine threads, called the mycelium, which stretch out beneath mushrooms in search of water and food. In some species, the mycelium covers several miles, making them the biggest living organisms on earth.

There are over 15,000 species of fungi in the UK and 200 of them can be found at Mere Sands Wood. Last autumn, local expert Fungal Punk Dave led a walk in which 141 species of fungus on the reserve were discovered.

Plums and custard add colour to woodland by Ted StevensPlums and custard add colour to woodland by Ted Stevens

The fungi kingdom is weird and wonderful. They have strange, inventive and often amusing names like chicken of the woods, pink ballerinas, scarlet elf cups, plums and custard, jelly ears and stinkhorn. Some are poisonous and some are delicious. It’s important to note that you should never pick and eat fungi that you cannot positively identify. For example, the amethyst deceiver, a small, bright purple mushroom that grows among leaf litter, is edible. However, it looks very similar to the poisonous lilac fibrecap. Unless you are with an expert, it is best to leave mushrooms where you find them – that way, others can enjoy their beauty – and go home with a photo instead.

With their slimy-looks, poisonous associations and their tendency to grow on dead things, many fungi have been treated with some suspicion for generations and, in general, fungi have always been historically shrouded in superstition and misunderstanding. In reality, these organisms play a pivotal role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem by recycling waste, breaking down organic materials like leaves and wood into new nutrients which then help plants and trees to grow and thrive. The existence of 95% of plants relies on fungi – we certainly owe these bizarre forms a lot of gratitude.

Many fungi species have additional uses too, which humans have been taking advantage of for thousands of years. Giant puffballs, leathery white mushrooms which can grow as big as a football, were used by Native American tribes as a coagulant to dress wounds and slow down bleeding. They’re also edible if harvested very young, and can be found for sale at farmers’ markets.

King Alfred’s cake or cramp balls, coal-like black balls that grow on dying ash trees, can hold a lit ember when dry and will smoulder for a long time. This is a technique used by early man and is still used by many bushcraft experts today.

The wide variety of fungi species at Mere Sands Wood indicates that the site is being correctly and sensitively managed for the benefit of wildlife, which is exactly what we want to see. This is possible thanks to hardworking staff and the fantastic support we receive from members, volunteers and visitors to the site, who help to keep this wildlife-haven thriving in West Lancashire.

Of course, toadstools are not only found on nature reserves. Our gardens are also a vital resource for wildlife of all forms. By keeping dead wood in your garden, you can encourage all kinds of fungi to grow, in turn, attracting the wildlife that depends upon it.

Why not leave some logs and branches out and see what arrives on your patch?

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