Fascinating fungi

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust shares tips on the joys of searching for fungi

NOW is the time for getting eyes and noses to the ground in search of those marvels of nature - toadstools, or fungi if you prefer. A few weeks of sunshine to warm the soil and some rain to make it damp can be all that is needed for mysterious shapes to burst forth in woods, unimproved pastures, gardens and hedgebanks.

Fungi are perhaps the least appreciated and most under-explained organisms on earth. From mouldy bread to dry rot, many people's experience of fungi can be negative. However, their role in our environment is extremely positive - they are natural 'recyclers', feeding on dead organic matter to release nutrients back into the environment, and supporting plant life on poor soils by aiding nutrient absorption through plant roots. This role is vital in the never-ending food chain of many different habitats - without fungi, the natural world would not function, and any deterioration in fungi can have a real impact on ecosystem health.

Fungi are everywhere, in a spectacular array of shapes, sizes and colours. Estimates of the world's number of fungal species run into the millions, outnumbering all other known living organisms put together. In the UK there are more than 4,000 larger fungi to be found - enough to keep any fungus fan busy. For the serious student of fungi - or mycologist - each year brings a different phenomenon. Frosts can cut down whole troops of toadstools in their prime, heavy rain can wash out the colours, making identification trickier, and no rain at all can make fungi forays difficult. However, it is the wonderful range of shape, size, form, colour and substrate - the stuff the fungus is growing out of - that brings endless fascination for the true fungi fanatic.

The good news is there are 30 or so species of larger fungi which occur commonly and, after a few seasons' practice, you can be reasonably confident at identifying them. The Collins Wild Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools is a good book to start you off, but if the bug really gets you, you might find you need an extensive library to identify the several thousand other species in Hertfordshire.

Whether you're just hunting for fun or with a guide book in your pocket, always remember there's more to these mysterious marvels than meets the eye.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust nature reserves are fantastic places to go on a fungus foray. Seven have been identified among or adjacent to the best 520 sites in the UK for fungi. Danemead (near Hoddesdon), Purwell Ninesprings (near Hitchin), Chorleywood Dell (near Rickmansworth) and Oughtonhead (near Hitchin) have a mixture of wet woodland and meadow habitats - rich habitat for fungi - whilst Hertford Heath (Hertford) and Therfield Heath (near Royston) are home to those species liking acidic scrub or grasslands. Fox Covert (near Royston) and Pryors Wood (Stevenage) host many larger woodland fungi and are well worth a visit in the autumn.

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Article taken from October issue of Hertfordshire Life