Cambs nature - mild and wet autumn is fantastic for fungi
Last month I featured the local survey undertaken by Dr Simon Gillings, Head of Population Ecology and Modelling at the British Trust for Ornithology. The method he uses involves tiny recorders that log calls made as migrating birds pass overhead during the night. Simon is particularly interested in redwing migration, but several species were recorded, and the numbers and range logged in this way is quite remarkable. The results of some of the observations from Simon’s ‘observatory’ in Chesterton have now been published in the latest bulletin of the Cambridgeshire Bird Club. In ten hours on the night of 29th October for example he recorded over 700 individuals and 1200 calls, and identified 14 species, including dunlin, golden plover, oystercatcher, wigeon, moorhen, coot, little grebe and ring ouzel, along with the more familiar blackbird, song thrush, robin, redwing and fieldfare. Over the whole of October, he logged an impressive 35 species passing overhead at night, including other waders such as turnstone, knot and common sandpiper, as well as larger birds such as whooper swan, barnacle goose and grey heron. Clearly this increasingly popular method is adding enormously to our knowledge of the movements of wild birds, especially during their autumn and spring migrations.
A mild autumn and the recent wet weather have provided ideal growing conditions for the fruiting bodies of many fungi. Beautiful and varied, fungi have been appearing in our woods, pastures and roadside verges for several weeks now. Some species of fungi are edible, including of course the familiar field mushroom, though advice should always be sought to ensure correct identification, as many are either indigestible or even poisonous. My friend Nick lives on a farm near Saffron Walden and he keeps us well supplied with free-range eggs. He also keeps cows whose well-manured pastures are ideal for fungi, and this year has been something of a bumper autumn for his delicious field mushrooms. Another favourite wild fungus of mine is the parasol mushroom. This tall species grows well on the sandy soils of nearby Breckland. It produces flat, plate-like caps on long stalks that stand out clearly on pastures, often where sheep have been grazing. Also edible and tasty are the domed, flaky caps of the shaggy ink-cap, also known as the lawyer’s wig. However, mature individuals soon start to turn up at the base of the cap and deliquesce into a slimy black inky mess carrying the spores. Picked when firm and young though, they are delicious cooked and have a delicate, distinctive flavour.
In some of our old-established woods, especially in the estates of Norfolk, there are magnificent stands of sweet chestnut trees. This splendid tree is not native to Britain and is widely thought to have been introduced by the Romans. Sweet chestnuts can grow to 35 metres and live for several hundred years. The leaves are long and toothed around the edge – quite unlike those of the unrelated horse chestnut, and chestnuts are very tasty and nutritious when roasted, unlike inedible conkers. A recent visit to the mixed woodland surrounding the National Trust property of Felbrigg Hall south of Cromer revealed fine ancient beech and sweet chestnut trees all in their splendid autumn colours. The ground beneath the trees was think with fallen leaves, amongst which nestled the splitting fruiting capsules of sweet chestnut, along with the glistening chestnuts themselves. Though smaller than those bought in the shops, the nuts seemed ripe and would certainly be a welcome source of food for wildlife, including birds and small mammals. This impressive crop is no doubt a result of the hot summer and mild autumn, as it is unusual to find ripe chestnuts in such abundance.