Nature Notes October 2022

As the weather changes, so the subject of interest for many naturalists switches to fungi which tend to be more abundant over the next few months than at any other time of the year. I find many of them difficult to identify, particularly the ones that are mushroom shaped and mushroom coloured, so the unmistakable Fly Agaric comes as a pleasant surprise. With its bright scarlet cap covered with white spots it is the legendary home of fairies and magical creatures. Found in Birch woodland, it has to be treated with respect as it is highly toxic and can cause hallucinations and psychotic reactions.

A much more common fungus that you can see on almost every trip to the woods at this time of year is Sulphur Tuft which grows around most types of tree stump, often in large clusters. The sulphur-yellow cap ages to a yellowy-brown colour, but can usually be distinguished from other similar mushrooms on the basis of the colour. A look under the cap at the dirty yellow gills will confirm the identity. It is inedible with a very bitter taste and has been linked with a number of cases of poisoning, leading to stomach pains, nausea, temporary paralysis and distorted vision.

A bit higher up on the trees, various bracket fungi can be seen. One of the commonest and most easily identifiable is the Horse’s Hoof fungus and a glance at the photograph will show where the name comes from. They are found on dead Silver Birch and Beech trees and can be seen in hardwood woodland throughout the county. Single individuals can be up to 45 cm across and they are occasionally seen in small groups. They are acrid and not edible. They are of use however because the leathery layer below the hard outer cuticle can be dried and used as a tinder for starting fires – it has been used for this purpose for more than 3,000 years.

As you can see from these examples, many of our common fungi are not only inedible, but can be very poisonous. You should never consume any fungus unless you obtain it from a reliable source or are assured by a real expert that it can be eaten safely. A walk in the autumn woods can be brightened up by looking for these unusual and often spectacular organisms. Start with the easy to name ones and gradually expand your knowledge as you are able to identify more and more. The three shown above (and several more) were seen in a short walk through a wood at Beacon Hill, but there are many woods across the county that contain fungi in abundance so it is not difficult to get started on this absorbing hobby.