A creaking gate lasts longest!

Male fern – Dryopteris filix-mas – I think; with Hart’s Tongue which at least I’m sure about!

I blame Helena, our VC6 (North Somerset) County Recorder, for getting me interested in ferns. Madame and I had joined a field trip to the Mendips, and in particular to a nature reserve elegantly named “GB Gruffy” The day is etched in my memory for two reasons; firstly because Helena spotted and named an unusual fern nestling six feet down a gated mineshaft. At the time my knowledge of ferns was confined to Bracken and Hart’s Tongue and I wasn’t even sure about bracken, so I was filled with admiration for her expertise. The other reason for remembering was that somehow I lost a rather expensive telescopic lens whilst yomping across the tussocky clumps in a deep bog.

Ferns have been around an awfully long time – around 300 million years – so they can certainly claim longevity in addition to a complicated sex life and the gift of occasionally doubling up on their chromosomes. They are – it’s true – very challenging to identify, or at least some of them are, and so they’re also fatally attractive to propeller heads like me. So after my brief excursion back to my old day job which really did stir up the silt of memories at the bottom of my pond, Madame made sure that our time was filled with anything that didn’t involve me wearing a frock. Distraction therapy, you might say. So we went up to Mendip to hunt for fungi – rather unsuccessfully; then we went to a fine lecture on bees – but not honey bees – and I found myself volunteering to lead a field trip in the spring, the thought of which is terrifying because I’ll be with a couple of co-leaders, a birder and an entomologist who really know what they’re up to. Imposter syndrome is a painful business! We drove back up to Priddy in the campervan for a couple of nights but the trip was overshadowed by heavy rain and thick fog, so we came home a day early. Since then we’ve been vaccinated for flu and Covid and I’ve had my new drug regime finalized. There’s nothing fatal wrong with me except worn out joints and an over excitable heart which requires that I take medicines with nasty side effects and which take weeks to bed down. My only concession to all this is to wear mittens a lot of the time because I now have Raynauds and my fingers get painful and stiff. I’m not quite 300 million years old but it occasionally feels like it, and so I’ve become a bit of a creaking gate.

Now prepare yourself for a true stinker of a link because a real creaking gate featured in yesterday’s walk. The sun was shining and Madame, continuing her campaign of loving distraction, took us off to Newton Park for a stroll around the lake so I could look for ferns and try out three new ID apps on my phone. This is going to be the subject of my talk next spring – phone apps and AI and their strengths and weaknesses.

Newton St Loe is a place that seems to be wholly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and so it’s a picture perfect village where even the no parking signs are made from cast iron. We parked the car as far from the signs as we could and bumped into a party of about a dozen people led by a man wearing a Viyella shirt with well pressed trousers and gleaming brown shoes. I concluded that he was a land agent or some such because they were all laughing at his jokes. We joined them as we walked up the road towards the church and unwittingly divided them into two groups. As we left the churchyard I became fascinated by the creaking of the gate because it sounded three distinct notes and so they waited a bit impatiently as I swung it to and fro and even sang along with it. I love the sounds that gates make. There’s a broken gate made from tubular steel on one of our favourite walks where we camp at St Davids. It sings sweetly like a flute and depending on the wind strength will even fluctuate over several harmonics. S

]Natural sounds are so important. Later as we sat alongside the lake I was trying out a birding app called Merlin – which is amazingly accurate. There were few birds that could compete with the sound of the wind in the still fully leaved trees, but crows, jackdaws, coot and mallard were all calling. Aside from that our best sighting was a hornet which dashed for cover among some laurels, and I found lots of Male ferns, which isn’t surprising because they’re ubiquitous in the UK. On the other hand I do at least know now what they’re called and – being a bit of a creaking gate myself – I could just have 299 million years left to learn the rest of them. But I’m not holding my breath.


Having written this piece, I realized in the middle of the night that with a little bit of detective work I could probably find the name of the fern that Helena spotted – apart from asking her, that is. So there’s a very useful document from the British Geological Survey which I often refer to, called the Biodiversity of Western Mendip which covers most of my favourite places. Turning to the section called GB Gruffy Site I discovered that a moderately unusual fern called the Brittle Bladder fern, Cystopteris fragilis occurs on that site but just to double check I went to the BSBI Atlas 2020 website and searched for it. One of the key tools for finding plants is to know their habitat and so when I read that this fern is most often found growing in the semi darkness of cave entrances and mineshafts and then found a confirmatory 2 KM dark square with the site in the middle I was delighted. Even more delightful was the news that one of my long-term bucket list plants – the Spring Sandwort, Minuartia verna also grows nearby. All I need to do is wait ’till next spring!

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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