Fancy Fungi

PUBLISHED: 17:38 17 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

Crimson Waxcap

Crimson Waxcap

Snowy, scarlet, parrot and ballerina - this is not the cast of the newest Disney cartoon, but the names of some of the UK's most colourful fungi, the waxcaps. This October the National Trust is launching Waxcap Watch, a public survey...

Fungi form a rich and varied part of our natural history and are responsible for recycling 90% of all dead matter on land, such as leaves, animals and wood. So, without fungi the world would very quickly become a giant rubbish tip. In short, the world could not exist without fungi. They live mostly underground as a matt of threads but after a warm summer and some autumn rain, they begin to push up their splashes of colour to the suface. These 'mushrooms' or 'toadstools' emerge to release spores in order to produce more fungi.

Despite a massive loss of habitat since the Second World War, the UK still has some of the finest ancient grassland sites in Europe. Half of the world's pink or ballerina waxcaps are thought to be in Britain. There are more than 40 species of waxcap in Britain but in recent years they have been facing a decline and some types are now considered under threat of extinction. Their natural habitat is being disturbed, developed, lost to agriculture or is simply suffering from a lack of care. Consequently, National Trust gardens and parks are becoming vital havens for these and other species of fungi.

Throughout the autumn, the National Trust are asking visitors to their properties to look out for the waxcap and log their sightings on a special website

From October to December the rainbow colours of the waxcap appear on tightly cropped lawns and old grassland where no fertiliser or soil improvers have been added. This makes National Trust properties, such as Tyntesfield, near Bristol, the perfect place to find the fascinating fungi. At Tyntesfield, the management of the parkland and woodlands has been minimal for many years and it is therefore a haven for fungi of all shapes, sizes and colour.

A recent survey of the fungi across the Tyntesfield estate has been carried out by two volunteers, John Bailey and Roy Betts. They looked predominantly at the lawns and parkland and identified 114 different species of fungi. The South Lawn, in front of the house, was home to eight waxcap species. In the parkland, they found a Psathyrella narcotica, identifiable by its smell of 'coal gas', which is extremely rare, with only eight previous records in the UK. Their audit also included recommendations to ensure the estate would continue to be a safe haven for fungi. They advised maintaining a short sward, the removal of clippings to avoid unnecessary nutrient enrichment and avoiding applying artificial fertilisers or farmyard manure.

Dr David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation at the National Trust, says, "Although thanks to this research we have a lot of information about Tyntesfield, in many cases we don't have a good picture of where waxcaps are and we don't have the resources to survey the hundreds of lawns and grasslands the National Trust cares for. We are asking our visitors to help us find out exactly what is out there, and all you need is a keen pair of eyes, a pen and paper, and the ability to get online. You don't need to be an expert, just enthusiastic."

With colours ranging from pink to green, the shiny tops of the waxcaps mean that they really stand out. Throughout the autumn, the National Trust is asking visitors to its properties to look out for the waxcap and log their sightings on a dedicated website, To help people distinguish the ballerinas from the parrots, a fungi guide can be downloaded from the website. Remember not to pick or touch fungi in the wild, as some are poisonous.

The results from the survey will be used to find out where there are large concentrations of waxcaps on National Trust land. These areas will then be targeted for more in-depth surveys in autumn 2008 and for specialist fungi forays designed to encourage young naturalists to get to grips with the wonderful and mystical world of toadstools.

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