One last fungus hunt – perhaps?

The gardens and lake at Stourhead

As autumn advances towards winter the fungal glory days gradually begin to dwindle and those ground dwellers that are left are often difficult to find amongst a thick carpet of leaves. The Bath Nats field meeting at Stourhead was billed as a general walk around with the prospect of seeing tree sparrows thrown in as a teaser. I like my quarry to sit still so I’m not much of a birder – feeling totally demoralized when someone names a brown blob flying away fast at 150 yards without even lifting up their £2000 Swarkovski binoculars. No mention of jizz encourages me that I’ll ever get there, although I did have a magic moment yesterday when I spotted a Marmalade Hoverfly and just knew what it was.

Tree Sparrows are something of a rarity around here I’ve been told, and a quick look at a local guide to Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire birding doesn’t even mention them. So off we went with our binoculars to Stourhead along with a group of Bath Nats members with a reassuringly wide range of interests.

And so, after presenting our National Trust membership cards we set off in pursuit of the group, directed by the staff on the entrance to turn off onto an anonymous looking footpath before we got to the places that most visitors go to look at. After a 50 yard yomp uphill through the mud we found our group in a characteristic fungal hunt position – backs bent and eyes firmly on the ground.

Now here’s the surprising bit of our day out. From the outset, Madame with her keen eye was spotting the fungi – amongst the fallen leaves, on bits of fallen dead wood and later on the stacks of cordwood left behind by foresters. For the most part they were tiny. The biggest things we saw were a couple of Dryad’s Saddles – Polyporus squamosus that had fallen off their dead host and lay rotting on the ground. One of our companions said that they stink like rotten fish and unable to resist the challenge I picked one up and gave it a sniff. It wasn’t exactly fishy but it did smell rotten and felt like soft flenched whale blubber in my hands. Later we saw a ring of Shaggy Parasols – Chlorophyllum rhacodes, but beyond that pretty well everything we found was in the 1-2 cm range. Of course these are precisely the road less travelled in fungus hunting, and it was immensely rewarding to find such lovely but tiny species. Here they are, and there’s a photocall at the end of this post.

Helvella lacunosa, Elfin Saddle,
Helvella crispa, White Saddle,
Ramariopsis kunzei, Ivory Coral,
Mycena rosea, Rosy Bonnet
Crepidotus epibyrus,
Xylaria hypoxylon, Candlesnuff Fungus,
Trametes versicolour, Turkey Tail,
Schizophyllum commune, Splitgill,
Stereum hirsutum, Hairy Curtain Crust,
Bulgaria inquinans, Black Bulgar,
Flammulina velutipes, Velvet Shank,
Chlorophyllum rhacodes, Shaggy Parasol,

So all in all it was an unexpectedly joyful and accidental fungus foray.

Since our leader was a volunteer with local knowledge, the Tree Sparrows turned out to be something of a done deal; tucked away at a feeding station and nest boxes that you’d never find if you weren’t taken there, but there we are; I can barely tell a House Sparrow from a Dunnock except for the wonderful tuneless chirp of the House Sparrow that fills me with memories of my childhood home.

This morning Madame and I sat in bed with my laptop and the books heaped in the middle and identified the fungi as best we could. Who says that romance is dead? – but please don’t take these photos as definitive. Some of them could be very wrong, but we did our best.

Later we walked around the lake, and by the time we reached the iron bridge it was dusk and Madame spotted something that looked like a Swallow skimming across the water. It was a Daubenton’s bat – an almost triumphal ending to a lovely day. By the time we reached the entrance it was almost dark.

The Amethyst Deceiver – and a similar phone app

Meet this wonderfully colourful and easy to identify fungus – just one of the treats we discovered on a wander yesterday through Stockhill Plantation on the Mendip Hills. The books disagree as to whether it’s edible or safe. Roger Phillips says yes and others say no – or at least to foraging them. Luckily we had the heavyweight Collins Guide with us and unlike some of our finds, Google Lens, on my phone, got it right the first time. Now I know that phone apps are a wonderful thing, but only when used with a considerable amount of caution. One or two fungi were bang on the money, but all too often the ID offered by the phone was too dodgy to trust.

I prefer to photograph the fungi carefully, including shots of the full length of the stipe (stalk) from soil to cap, some idea of the size, the gills from below and from the side and similarly the cap. Then I can take the pictures home and with a bit of luck get a sound ID. Any mycologist will object that often a proper ID relies on looking at the spores through a high powered microscope and even measuring them – in microns! – none of which I can do, so nature wins that round. So my photos aren’t taken with aesthetics as the principal aim. They’re a form of electronic notebook. The real work begins at home and it’s such good fun, like reading a fungal Agatha Christie – you know the answer’s in there somewhere!

Where phone apps like Google Lens – there are others that may well be much more reliable – so where they go wrong is in the part of our brains that really wants to trust them. There were two or three identifications yesterday that could have been dangerously misleading. I really wanted to believe that these were respectively Penny Buns – Boletus edulis and Saffron Milkcap – Lactarius deliciosus, and if I’d been a forager relying on the phone I would have given us both a nasty surprise. Another identification included a seriously hallucinatory mushroom – not the Fly Agaric or the Magic Mushroom (we were in woodland) but another deceptively innocuous one which was first cousin to the good to eat one. As I see it, the best use for the phone app is to try to discover the family and the to turn to books.

So it’s peak fungus right now, and as foraging becomes ever more popular, my plea is that we should all be careful and even with a certain and verified identification we should never over-pick at the expense of the fungus’ capacity to reproduce itself. For me, they extend the season for walking and exploring into autumn and that’s wonderful. But there’s always space for wonder at their capacity to conceal themselves in leaf litter or on grass, even though they often display luminous and occasionally garish colours. Picking them just deprives another walker from experiencing that burst of joy. My other suggestion is to join a group – not just a foraging group. There are thousands of fungi out there and some of them will blow your mind – literally if you’re not careful! You’ll learn so much from fungus forays; and notice I wrote foray and not forage.

Here are some yet to be properly identified heroes and villains amongst the racing certainties.

And here’s a shot of where we were, and as you’ll see immediately if you know and love the Mendip Hills as we do, this is yet another post-industrial site; another lead mining area that extends across the road into the Mineries which hasn’t been covered with trees and has its own flora and fauna. It’s hard to believe that over the centuries this whole site was dug over, tunnelled into and polluted with heavy metals. Now, apart from the road through the middle, it’s quiet with just the sound of the wind in the trees and a few dog walkers and nature lovers.

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