The RSPB are working to improve the reputation of fungi following the recent outbreak of ash dieback disease in the UK, which is caused by non-native species Chalara fraxinea. “Fungi are an important but unappreciated part of our world,” according to Martin Harper, the charity’s director of conservation.
Fungi are neither animals nor plants, occupying a kingdom all of their own. “Native fungi have evolved with their ecosystem and are vital to its functioning,” said Mr Harper. Species of Mitrula, common name "bog beacon" (pictured), are often found in marsh or bog land and appear to glow against the dark backdrop of peat.
For much of the year fungi are invisible, existing as filamentous structures - hyphae - inside organic matter. Collectively these structures are known as a mycelium. It is only during the fruiting season that mushrooms or toadstools emerge in a variety of shapes and colours, such as these brilliant scarlet waxcaps.
“Fungal diseases are actually part of healthy woodlands and many of our most-threatened woodland species are those that depend on the rot and dead wood they cause,” explained Mr Harper. Green elfcup, for example, thrives in leaf litter.
“Even fungi that cause disease can be important in controlling populations of plants or animals, and many insects that need dead wood depend on fungi to provide it,” Mr Harper said. The UK has at least 14,000 different species of fungi including tiny moulds, mildews, smuts, rusts and 4,000 mushrooms or other large fungi.
Species of Russula genus (pictured) are found in a range of colours and have a texture like crumbly cheese. Smells also feature prominently in the fungal world. There are mushrooms that smell of aniseed, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, fruit bubblegum, crab paste and curry powder.
Young specimens of the inedible fungus Hydnellum peckii produce a red juice that have prompted common names such as "strawberries and cream" and "bleeding tooth fungus". Its habitat is coniferous woodland as this fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with pine trees.
This Cordyceps militaris, known as the "scarlet Caterpillarclub" attacks moth pupae in the soil, killing the developing insect and sending out a gnarled red spike from its head. Many fungi are named after what they most resemble: "chicken of the woods", "common bird’s nest", "nail fungus" and "mosaic puffball" to name a few.
The fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, is often found in birch woodland. It is an iconic fungus and one of the most widely recognised due to its bright red cap and white spots. Commonly known to be highly poisonous, it holds a prominent place in popular culture and folklore, often appearing in children's books and Christmas cards.
Around 25% of all species recorded on RSPB nature reserves are fungi, amounting to 3,400 species of fungus. Picking and eating fungi is not advisable unless you are with an experienced guide. In addition to certain fungi being fatally poisonous, some are also very rare.
Credits: BBC Nature