Woodlands.co.uk https://www.woodlands.co.uk Woodland for Sale in the UK Fri, 27 Nov 2020 08:34:52 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 152210020 von Siebold and the Japanese Knotweed https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/von-siebold-and-the-japanese-knotweed/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/von-siebold-and-the-japanese-knotweed/#comments Fri, 27 Nov 2020 00:32:42 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34371

Philipp Franz von Siebold was a nineteenth century German doctor and botanist, who worked for several years in Japan, accumulating an extensive collection of plants and animals from that area.  He was responsible for the introduction of  a number of (now common) garden plants to Europe - such Hostas and Hydrangea. Siebold is almost unknown outside Japan except among gardeners as many plants incorporate sieboldii and sieboldiana in their specific names - for example, species of Primula, cherry (Prunus), Sedum and Viburnum.  Siebold was also associated with the introduction of tea cultivation to Java.  On his return to Europe, he was based in Leiden where he worked on cataloguing and identifying his twelve thousand botanical specimens.  

Unfortunately, one of the plants that Siebold introduced was the Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica, syn. Fallopia japonica). This has become a highly invasive weed in Europe and North America. The plant was discovered growing on the side of a volcano; it was named as the “most interesting new ornamental plant of the year” by the Society of Agriculture and Horticulture in Utrecht.

However, now the Japanese Knotweed is listed as one of the world’s worst invasive species.  It has an incredibly invasive root system and its vigorous growth damages concrete foundations, buildings, flood defences, roads, paving, retaining walls and architectural sites.  In Amsterdam, the knotweed is causing major damage to building foundations, pavements and dykes costing millions of Euros each year.  It is a frequent coloniser of riversides (not unlike the Himalayan balsam), roadsides and waste places. It forms thick, dense stands of vegetation that completely overwhelm any other native species. It can tolerate a very wide range of soil types, pH and salinity. Its underground stems (rhizomes) can survive temperatures well below freezing and can reach down some 10 feet into the soil, which makes removal very, very difficult.  

In consequence, the Dutch government has recently made the unprecedented decision to issue an exemption to the ban on the introduction / use of alien species partly because of the ever increasing costs of removal of the knotweed and repairing the damage that it causes.  Laboratory tests have shown that the jumping leaf fleas – psyllids, Aphalara itadori – suck sap from young shoots and could stop the plant growing by depleting its energy sources.  This is potentially a form of biological control.  Some five thousand of these Japanese leaf fleas have been released in three different field locations in Amsterdam to try to combat the Japanese knotweed.  It is hoped that the leaf fleas will hibernate over winter and then establish themselves in the new year. More specimens will be released in the Spring.  The ‘project’ is being co-ordinated by Dr.Suzanne Lommen, who works at the institute of Biology in Leiden (where knotweed was first introduced by Siebold). 

If the leaf fleas can establish themselves and spread, it is possible that that can limit or indeed stop the growth of the knotweed - which would be a cheap and environmentally effective means of control.  It is thought that the leaf fleas present no threat to native insects / plant life.

Scientists from Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI) in Egham, UK, are working with Leiden University to work on two possible biological controls – the sap-sucking psyllid Aphalara itadori and also the leaf spot fungus Mycosphaerella polygonicuspidati – hopefully to manage the Japanese knotweed.

All images courtesy of the Non Native Species Secretariat - further images and information here


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Bark : damage https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/bark-damage/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/bark-damage/#respond Fri, 20 Nov 2020 00:07:22 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34365

Wind, fire and frost can seriously damage or kill trees.   Animals also wound them when they feed on bark tissues, and when they rub their bodies or antlers against tree trunks. Insects, like bark beetles can cause significant damage damage to woodlands and forests.

The extent of damage to trunks and the bark of trees varies considerably in relation to the nature of the ‘attack’.  If the damage to the bark is severe and the vascular cambium is exposed then neither new water nor sugar conducting tissue can be formed.  Damage to the (outer) cork cambium (phellogen) will limit the trees ability to form the outer tissues of the bark - which protect the tree.  If the damage is restricted to the outermost bark layer then this will render the tree more susceptible to further damage (be it from herbivores or temperature extremes).

Damage by herbivores depends on the  availability of other food and water resources. A range of animals feed on bark tissues varying from deer, squirrels, orang utans, rhinos, beavers to porcupines.  Animals are often quite selective in their choice of tree species and consequently can have significant effects on the make up of plant communities. Bushbabies generally feed on insects during the wet seasons, but when there is drought they feed on the resins / gum that flows from the trees in their acacia-dominated woodlands. Gums and resins exude as a response to wounding to protect the tree from further damage, but as they contain carbohydrates and minerals, they contribute to the diet of animals like the Bushbabies .  

birch bark

Birch bark

Deer damage

In the U.K, significant bark damage is done by deer. Damaged but small woody stems often have a ragged cut end, where a deer has bitten part way through the stem and then tugged the leafy shoot off.  In comparison, rabbit damage on younger trees is generally recognised by a clean cut as they have teeth in the upper and lower jaw.  

Woodlands throughout the U.K. currently support very large populations of various species of deer.  The indigenous deer species are Roe Deer and Red Deer.   Fallow Deer were introduced by the Normans but in the late C19th / early C20th Chinese water deer, Reeves Muntjac and sika deer arrived.  The three most widespread and abundant deer species now are Roe deer, Fallow deer and Reeves’ muntjac  Deer will eat bark, especially during the winter months  when other food is scarce. In the summer, bark damage can occur when male deer rub their heads against the trunks of trees 

  • to remove the outer skin or ‘velvet’ from their new formed antlers or 
  • to scent-mark their territories. 

Deer damage can decimate plant communities and prevent natural regeneration of trees.  It can be a major problem in natural woodlands and commercial plantations.  Tree shelters and guards can help protect against deer damage.

Tree guards, to protect young trees on moorland

The Forestry Commission has produced a useful guide (in PDF format) on tree protection which can be downloaded here.

Deer are not alone in causing bark damage.  Grey squirrels are also culprits, as they damage trees by gnawing the stem to reach the ‘sweet’, sap-filled tissues (phloem tissue) just below the bark. If this gnawing encircles the stem,  the tree is ‘ringed’.   This results in the phloem tissue being removed and consequently the movement of sugars stops and the tree will die. This bark stripping mainly takes place between late Spring and early Summer. Trees like beech, oak, sweet chestnut, pine, larch, Norway spruce and sycamore, mature but not old,  are often the subject of attack, especially when the ‘density’ of squirrels is high.  The slender twigs of young trees don’t support their weight and old trees have a thick bark - it is too much of a challenge!.  

Bark is also subject to attack by bark beetles.  In and around the West Coast of the United States, the destruction of vast areas of forest has occurred.  The loss of these forests is due to a Bark Beetle that devours the soft tissues underneath the bark. An individual beetle is quite small, nevertheless vast areas of forest have been ‘lost’ due to the activities of these beetles.  They breed and feed beneath the bark, damaging the phloem and cambium (the latter forms new xylem and phloem tissue).  Consequently, the tree's transport systems begin to fail and rendering the tree liable to attack by fungi and other micro-organisms.

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“The Scottish Uplands: how to revive a degraded landscape” a talk by Dr Helen Armstrong https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/the-scottish-uplands-how-to-revive-a-degraded-landscape-a-talk-by-dr-helen-armstrong/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/the-scottish-uplands-how-to-revive-a-degraded-landscape-a-talk-by-dr-helen-armstrong/#comments Sat, 14 Nov 2020 11:13:08 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34406

Checking through my emails, I came across a link sent by a friend to one of the winter talks in the program offered by the Botanical Society of Scotland - specifically The Scottish Uplands: how to revive a degraded landscapeby Dr Helen Armstrong.  The talk was live-streamed but was also recorded and is available here.  

Dr Armstrong spent 24 years at the Nature Conservancy Council, the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forest Research carrying out research and advisory work.

The following is an attempt to summarise some of the key features of her informative and enlightening talk.

Historical Background

The last ice age ended approximately 9000 years ago and, as the glaciers retreated, so a tundra-like vegetation of  plants such as dwarf willow and juniper established itself. Trees then began to move in (first hazel, birch, willow, Scots Pine and aspen then oak, elm and alder), as did the first human hunter-gatherers. Gradually, a rich forested landscape developed, though trees were felled and clearings were made.  The highland forest was probably at its greatest extent between 4000 to 2500 years ago.  There was period between 3000 and 2000 thousand years ago when the climate cooled somewhat and Scots Pine dominated woodland contracted somewhat.  As time passed, more woodland was cleared for farming activities.  This continued up to about 1000 CE, at which time woodland cover has been estimated at 20%.

Throughout the following centuries, woodland cover continued to decline through human activities such as coppicing, pollarding and the creation of wood pasture until the sixteenth century when acts were passed to limit the deforestation; although charcoal then tanbark production continued in succeeding centuries.  Gradually, sheep replaced cattle in the Lowlands and Highlands.  The nineteenth century saw a fall in timber prices so sheep farming and grouse shooting increased and by the turn of the twentieth century woodland cover was probably at its lowest - about 6%.  The lack of timber available at the time of the first world war - for mine props, fuel etc was a problem and most had to be imported.  In consequence, the Forestry Commission was created, which embarked on massive program of tree planting - largely of coniferous plantations.  Currently some 18 / 19% of the land area is woodland, but of this 14% is coniferous woodland; only 4% is native woodland and even less (1.5%) is ancient / relic woodland.  Though these changes have been felt throughout Scotland, they have particularly affected the Scottish Uplands.

As woodlands were lost so were many plant and animal species. For example, the lynx (a top predator in the second or third century CE), wild ox or aurochs in the ninth / tenth century and at about the same time brown bears ‘disappeared’.  In subsequent centuries, reindeer, moose, beavers, wild boar, wolves all vanished.  This loss of species was compounded in Victorian times by the ‘eradication of vermin’ from estates.  The ‘vermin’ included  otters, ospreys, golden eagles, marsh harriers, kites, kestrels and buzzards (in large numbers), various owls and badgers.  As trees and various animal species were lost, so the trees, grasses and herb layer changed.

Grass and moorland alongside the loch

Current land use in the Uplands

The Scottish Uplands now support four major uses of the land:-

  • Forestry : whilst there are areas of natural Scots Pine woodland / forest, much of the woodland now is coniferous plantations (for example, sitka spruce) which is harvested by clear felling on 40 / 50 year cycle.  There is little native woodland remaining in the Uplands, it has largely been replaced with commercial plantations.  As mentioned above only 4% of the woodland can be regarded as native woodland in nature, even less is ancient woodland (dating from the 1700’s).
  • black face sheepSheep / hill sheep farming : black faced sheep are farmed in many areas and associated with this is the burning of tracts of land.  This is done to encourage the regrowth of grass / vegetation in the Spring, giving a higher quality of forage for the sheep.  There are often high numbers of sheep and grazing can be quite intense.  That being said, sheep farming is on the decline partly as result of a change in the nature of the subsidies for sheep farming and the ageing population of sheep farmers.
  • Grouse rearing / shooting :  In order to manage grouse rearing / shooting,  heather moorland is regularly burnt (on a 25 years cycle) to create a mosaic of heather plants at different stages of growth and development.   This provides the best environment for grouse to feed and raise their chicks. Some 10% of the land area is used for grouse shooting and 4% of the land area is regularly strip burned.   The areas are subject to culling of various animals which might take the grouse or their chicks.
  • Deer / deer stalking : the two main types of deer in Scotland are red deer and roe deer.  Stalking of red stags is particularly favoured by clients, so estates may feed stags in the winter months to maintain their numbers.  However, other estates are trying to bring the numbers of deer down.   Information on red deer in terms of numbers, age, weight, numbers culled / killed is limited.    Similarly, data on roe deer are also quite limited, but is thought that their number has expanded in recent years.

deer damage

The impact on woodland areas

  • In the last forty years, some 12% of ancient woodland has been converted to open ground through the grazing activity of deer.  Much of this woodland has been in Upland areas.
  • Some 33% of ancient woodlands are subject to heavy grazing so that natural regeneration does not occur.  If this is allowed to continue, then these woodlands will ultimately disappear.
  • About half of native woodland is subject to grazing that restricts tree and shrub regeneration to a greater or lesser extent.  The more palatable species will disappear and the less palatable will survive, so the composition of the woodland will change.   Montane scrub has been lost, bog woodland, treeline woodland and tall herb communities have been affected.

    Remnants of birch woodland near Loch Muick are subject to browsing by red deer (especially in the winter), so temporary fences have been put in place to allow for regeneration.  See also the photo at the end of this blog.

  • In open grassland areas, the selective grazing by sheep has changed the species composition - increasing cover by unpalatable grasses such as Nardus stricta and Molinia caerulea.  Consequently, forage quality is reduced.  Vegetation structure and species diversity is reduced.  Flowering and seed set is affected by the grazing, which in turn affects animal species, for example, insect pollinators and small mammals that feed on seeds. This loss of biodiversity, coupled with the historic loss of many key species, is worrying.  Many areas can no longer support a diverse range of animals.
  • Soils have become acidified (partly through peat formation but also the accumulation of conifer needles);  soils have become wetter (trees tend to dry out soils) and  leaching of nutrients has increased.
  • Soil erosion has increased: soil gets washed into water bodies (streams, lakes)

  • With the loss of tree cover, the risk of flooding increases.  There is also the loss of shelter for animals such as deer, cattle etc; animals generally do better in woodland than in open / exposed areas.
  • With decreasing biodiversity and structural complexity of ecosystems so the resilience of such systems falls.

The result is, to quote Dr. Armstrong “A landscape burned and grazed to the bone or smothered under dense conifers”.   This is not a particularly new observation or conclusion,  Sir Frank Fraser Darling wrote in The West Highland Survey  - An essay in human ecology (1955) “The bald, unpalatable fact is that the Highlands and Islands are largely a devastated terrain”.

Can things be reversed / improved ?

Regeneration is indeed possible if

  1. Grazing by sheep and deer is reduced
  2. The burning of moorland is stopped or substantially reduced
  3. Trees and other species are planted - particularly in areas where there is no source of seeds
  4. Conifers plantations are diversified, made richer in species

Other things that might be considered are cattle grazing in areas where unpalatable species have taken a hold, as cattle are less ‘fussy’ than sheep.  Also the re-introduction of lost  / historic species could be considered.   The most important thing is to restore the habitats so they can support more plant and animal species, to that end 1 and 2  (above) are the most important measures.

Where can this be done ?

Most of the Uplands could support woodland, there are only a few areas where this is not possible.  In places where burning has stopped and grazing has been reduced, for example. on the Mar Lodge Estate and the Arisaig Estate , woodland has returned.    At Ben Lawers, treeline woodland and montane scrub have been restored.    What would a more wooded landscape offer?   Increased 

  • Biodiversity
  • Pollinators
  • Shelter 
  • Wood products
  • Recreational areas
  • Resilience to climate change
  • Resilience to pests and disease

It would also offer decreased :

  • Soil erosion,
  • landslides, 
  • silting of streams and lochs
  • Flooding

Taking all of the above together, the areas should be productive biologically and economically.

Can it be done?

As with so many things, there is resistance to change - we like what we grew up with and know.   This is often accompanied by the belief that change is impossible or indeed undesirable.  However, change is possible as the above examples  (Mar Lodge and Ben Lawers) illustrate.   A lot of land is held by a relatively small number of people and central & local authorities have relatively little sway over the landowners of large estates.  Landowners may wish to continue with the deer and grouse shooting and associated land management (as their land is sometimes valued in terms of its grouse shooting / stag hunting etc). 

There are also problems associated with current deer legislation. Much of this is outdated having been put in place to protect deer, now it needs to focus on reducing deer density and protecting habitats.  The Muirburn code, which concerns the burning of heather [for grouse or sheep], is voluntary.  Landowners should not burn on bog, on steep slopes or high ground but this is not monitored.   Grants and subsidies should focus more on the creation of more diverse and productive land.  There needs to be investment in people and resources to bring about a richer and more diverse Highland environment.

The Loch Muick project is one of a number of projects that aims to restore natural vegetation to areas that have suffered from species loss

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November Fungi Focus: Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) and the documentary Fantastic Fungi https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/november-fungi-focus-amethyst-deceiver-laccaria-amethystina-and-the-documentary-fantastic-fungi/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/november-fungi-focus-amethyst-deceiver-laccaria-amethystina-and-the-documentary-fantastic-fungi/#respond Thu, 12 Nov 2020 10:36:12 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34434

There has been such a diversity of interesting things popping up in the woods recently then fading right back almost as soon as they appear that it is almost overwhelmingly difficult to know where to lay ones focus for November’s post. In just a few weeks or so the peak mushroom season will be over, and then these monthly articles will be move away from our more typical looking types to the whatever crusts, rusts, slimes or jellies are out at any given time. At the moment, however, it seems like a Sisyphean task just trying to keep up with monitoring and capturing on camera the rich and colourful array of species appearing in brief successive waves in my local woods after spending so much of the year lying dormant – a task tinged with the sadness of knowing it will all be easing off again shortly. For this month, I’ve decided to split my focus between a mushroom that is undeniably striking, instantly recognisable and yet fairly commonplace, and a new documentary entitled Fantastic Fungi that sets out to explain why so many of us are smitten with this mysterious and, as we are now increasingly coming to realise, incredibly important aspect of our living world. Amethyst5

There can be few who fail to be impressed by the vibrant hues of the Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina). It is but one of a number of types found around this time of year with a more pinkish, purplish or rosaceous colour that immediately makes it stand out against the muted palette of the late-Autumn woodland. I covered the Rosy Bonnet (Mycena rosea) and Lilac Bonnet (Mycena pura) this time last year. Other fetching fungi like my personal favourite, the Wrinkled Peach (Rhodotus palmatus) and the various Blewits, such as Lepista nuda, the Wood Blewit, are also commonly found throughout November. The deep purple hues of the Amethyst Deceiver, an ectomycorrhizal species that forms symbiotic associations with the roots of trees of all different types, and can be found amongst the damp leaf litter, particularly in beech woods, in abundance throughout Autumn, makes this one a very easy one to identify, even as the colours begin to wash out from the cap with age.

The amethyst hues permeate right through the flesh and stretch evenly to the gills and stem, even seeping into the mycelial fluff at its base. It is a small, delicate looking mushroom, the cap rarely getting much bigger than just over a centimetre in diameter and perched on a thin, fibrous, often twisting stipe that ranges from 5-10cm in length. The gills are deep and widely spaced, and either adnate with the stem, meaning attached to it, or emarginate, meaning slightly notched where they meet it. It is purported edible too, but with the stems too tough for consumption, the tiny caps don’t leave much for the pot if that’s where your interest in fungi lies, and most sources describe their taste as indistinctive. The other reason for not bothering with this as an edible is possible confusion with the Violet Webcap (Cortinarius violaceus), a species that is firstly incredibly rare and secondly belongs to a group of mushrooms that boasts some incredibly dangerous members.


To be fair, while I’ve yet to chance upon a single Violet Webcap, comparisons with their descriptions in the guide books should put pay to any confusion. As well as scarce, Violet Webcaps are big and chunky, with the First Nature website describing a cap diameter between 6 to 12cm and a stem that can reach over 3cm in thickness at its club-shaped base. A spore print, in any case, will dispel any doubt. Typical for a Cortinarius species, the Violet Webcap will leave a rusty brown deposit, and this colouration manifests itself on the gills of older specimens. The spores of the Amethyst Deceiver are white – basically the only non-purple part of the mushroom. Get them beneath a microscope lens and they prove to be rather unusual: rather than ovoid, pip or tear-shaped, they are near enough spherical, and covered in tiny spines.

Amethyst spores

So why such an ominous sounding name, one might ask, given that they are so easily identifiable? It is because the Amethyst Deceiver has inherited the second part of its common name from the Laccaria group that it belongs too, specifically its close relation The Deceiver, or Laccaria laccata. The Deceiver is roughly the same shape and dimensions of the Amethyst Deceiver, but instead of purple, its colour ranges from brownish brick red through orange to salmon pink. In other words, it closely resembles the numerous species classified under the sobriquet of LBMs, or ‘Little Brown Mushrooms’ (or LBJs, ‘Little Brown Jobs’) – a catch-all term to describe mushrooms that are ubiquitous and nondescript enough not to warrant further inspection unless one really wants to dive deep down into the abyss of futility and frustration.

While The Deceiver’s varying hues and small, unremarkable appearance can cause some confusion in identification, there are enough tell-tale signs to separate the Laccaria from other mushrooms in groups like Entoloma and Tubaria that also fall within the LBM category. The trouble is really zeroing in to distinguish it from other members of the sizeable Laccaria group, such as Laccaria proxima or Laccaria bicolor, without wishing to head down the rabbit hole of microscope work. The Amethyst Deceiver, by contrast, has its deep-coloured purple hues to set it aside from its closely related fellow family members.



The case of The Deceiver perhaps highlights how a certain ennui can set in at a time of the year when the woodlands are liberally peppered with mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. I personally have a similar problem with Mycena, or the Bonnet mushrooms: I’m happy enough just to recognise a given example as belonging to the Mycena genus without the need to know which of the hundreds of possible specimens it is exactly. Mycology can be an exciting and rewarding hobby, but it can also be maddeningly cryptic. It is enough to make one want to retreat back into the house to spend the long, cold, damp autumn evenings doing something else, perhaps, like watching a film…

And so that brings me to the UK release of the American documentary Fantastic Fungi, which was meant to be getting a limited run in our cinemas from 6th November before the second lockdown shut them down again, as if demonstrating that making films is, if anything else, an even more frustrating endeavour than mycology. By extension, making films about mycology might well be seen as an inevitable path to madness. 

The truth is that documentaries about the natural world have tended to be seen as the preserve of television over the years, particularly with the BBCs dominance in the UK. Standalone feature-length factual films on science are rare enough, and films devoted to fungi scarcer still. The mothballing of British cinemas means that the audience for Fantastic Fungi will be exclusively on the small screen, rather than the large one it was made for, but it is at least going out on a number of digital platforms, including Amazon Prime, Google Play and Apple TV, that should hopefully bring it to a wider audience (see here for UK digital release details).   This demotion to the home cinema experience is inevitably going to prove a source of frustration for its director, Louie Schwartzberg, a cinematographer and time-lapse pioneer whose previous work, Mysteries of the Unseen World (2013), a 3D-IMAX film made in conjunction with National Geographic, played on some of the largest screens in the world. Fantastic Fungi certainly cries out to be seen on a big screen, with its beautiful time-lapses of various mushrooms and its computer-generated recreations of the hyphal networks stretching like a digital nexus beneath the forest floor clearly calculate to wow.

Science documentary making is a tricky balancing act between delivering visual spectacle and enough factual information without overloading the viewer with a barrage of jargon. From a mycological point of view, Fantastic Fungi doesn’t quite get it right. Let me get one thing out of the way first - having co-directed a feature on slime moulds, The Creeping Garden (2014), I was somewhat dismayed to see numerous time-lapses of myxomycetes amongst the mushroom footage passed without any comment that they belong to an entirely different kingdom from fungi. Another issue is that the talking heads interviews with the experts who provide the film’s factual through-line can’t help but look rather mundane compared with the visual bombast on display elsewhere. Carrying the weight of the exposition and taking centre stage amongst the surprisingly select number of interviewees is Paul Stamets, and what one takes away from the documentary might well be largely down to ones prior knowledge of a figure who has proven somewhat divisive within the mycological community. 

On the one hand, his evangelical zeal in espousing fungi’s ability to heal body and soul and all manner of planetary malaises such as mopping up environmental pollution and radioactive spills has proven undeniably infectious. There are many who would cite his highly popular book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (2005) as their gateway into the field, myself included. To some others he is a snake oil salesman, who goes light on the science and is prone to exaggerated claims to boost his own enterprise, Fungi Perfecti, and Schwartzberg’s film has an unfortunate hagiographical air to it, with Stamets himself as the editor behind the tie-in book publication Fantastic Fungi: How Mushrooms Can Heal, Shift Consciousness, and Save the Planet. It is frustrating to see Fantastic Fungi diverge from the biological science and down the New Age route so early in its 80-minute runtime, with Stamets recounting an epiphanic psilocybin experience in some detail and attributing it to curing a childhood stammer. Celebrated “psychonaut” Terence McKenna is check-listed in a segment that reiterates his controversial claim that hallucinogenic fungi might have played a crucial role in the evolution of human consciousness. These sort of ideas are fine to throw in as one-liners to a documentary, I think, if presented as they are, which are hypotheses or opinions, not facts that have been submitted to a degree of serious scrutiny and validation. But around this midpoint, Fantastic Fungi gets derailed around into this kind of vague hypothetical pseudoscience, and subsequent claims about how certain mushrooms hold the cure for cancer feel laboured.

Despite my reservations, I would check recommend it as worth watching as a primer on fungi, a world that remains curiously invisible in everyday discussion. There are moments of wonder and beauty within it and if it encourages more people to delve into the subject, that can’t be a bad thing. The most important thing to bear in mind is that while not all of it should be taken at face value, the beautiful world presented onscreen is much closer to all of us than might be imagined. Take a wander out into the woods with a keen eye and an open mind, and it is all there for all of is. Indeed, there may be well a patch of Amethyst Deceivers not far from where you are now. Fantastic Fungi is in virtual UK Cinemas from 6th November and available on Apple TV, Amazon and Google Play from 9thNovember. More details of its release can be found here. You can check out the trailer here. 

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Bark, its nature and uses. https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/bark-its-nature-and-uses/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/bark-its-nature-and-uses/#respond Fri, 06 Nov 2020 00:02:41 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34321

Bark is the term that is often applied to the outer covering of tree stems and other woody plants. It serves to protect a tree from 

  • Water loss
  • Insect attack
  • Infection by bacteria and fungi
  • Physical damage (by fire, animals, rock fall)

The nature of bark is immensely variable.  In some trees, the bark is extremely rough, corrugated and thick.  In others it is is thinner and appears to peel off in strips.   Redwoods are noted for having an extremely thick bark (see featured image above). Their bark is very fibrous and can be up to three feet thick.  It provides not only protection against fire, but also rock fall; both of which are hazards in their home habitat. In the cork oak (Quercus suber), the cork layer of the bark is so thick that it can be harvested periodically without damaging / killing the trees.   The bark of birch ‘exfoliates’, it can be removed in long strips.  These strips can be put to various used - from the covering of canoes, to roofing material and even shoe making.  The inner bark of birch is also edible and can be used in making bark bread.

birch bark

'peeling' bark of Birch

Bark and its ‘products’ have a number of varied uses.  In historical times, Jesuit’s Bark was used in the treatment of malaria.  The bark, which contains quinine, was obtained from the  Cinchona tree and for many years was the only treatment effective against malaria.    It is not the only bark known for its medicinal / pharmaceutical value.  The bark of Willows produces a sap, which is rich in salicylic acid.  It has long been used as a remedy for aches and fevers, indeed Hippocrates spoke of its properties in the 5th century BC. 

Other barks can provide colourings and flavourings, for example cinnamon. cinnamon This spice is obtained from the inner bark of several tree species from the genus Cinnamomum (member of the Laurel family). I t is used in a variety of cuisines; some sweet, some savoury.  Its distinctive aroma and flavour are due to an essential oil, which contains cinnamaldehyde and eugenol. Much of the world’s supply  comes from Indonesia and China.  (RH image of cinnamon stick)

A different bark product is rubber.  Natural rubber is harvested in the form of latex from the amazonian rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis).  This tree belongs to the same family as the common spurge, the Euphorbiaceae. The latex is a sticky, milky exudate which drains from incisions made in the bark; the collection of this sap is known as "tapping". The latex is later refined into rubber for commercial use.

oak barkVarious tree barks have been used in the tanning of leather.  Bark contains a wide range of chemicals - notably polyphenols or tannins.  The tannins can attach to the protein in the animal hides which means they are more resistant to bacterial attack.  Tree barks that were used included oak (adjacent image), chestnut, hemlock and sumach (around the Mediterranean area).

There is no clear or simple definition of what bark actually is in terms of its structure, origin and make-up.  Broadly speaking it is the tissues they lie outside the vascular cambium.  The vascular cambium is a layer of actively dividing cells that form water conducting xylem tissue (towards the inside of the tree) and sugar conducting tissue towards the outside of the tree.   So the inner part of the bark lies next to the cambium and phloem, and generally contains various types of living cells.  Indeed, this part of the bark may contain the glands that produce latex and resins (often important in repair after physical damage to coniferous trees). 

Moving outwards, one comes to the outer bark or rhytidome, which contains living and dead material - notably cork cells.  Cork cells are produced by another layer of actively dividing cells - called the cork cambium or phellogen.  The cork cells fill with a waxy substance - Suberin.  As this layer of cells ‘thickens’ so the cells are no longer supplied with water and nutrients, they die and form much of the bulk of what is commonly termed the bark.  The nature of bark is immensely variable.

wild cherry bark

Bark of wild cherry (thanks to Art Symons).

Bark of London Plane.

Bark of Pine

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AI technology harnessing the hoverflies. https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/ai-technology-harnessing-the-hoverflies/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/ai-technology-harnessing-the-hoverflies/#comments Mon, 02 Nov 2020 08:11:55 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33611

The loss of pollinators, particularly honey bees, may bring about a synergy between pollinators such as hover flies and artificial intelligence technology.  Honey bees (and indeed bumblebee)s have been hit hard by habitat loss, pollution, the  extensive use of pesticides and the spread of viruses and varroa.  Bees provide an important ecosystem service, namely pollination.   bees provide the majority of plant pollination world-wide but the bees are fighting a losing battle and this represents a threat to food supplies.  In the United States, bee hives are 'bussed around' in a somewhat 'cavalier manner', indeed "Hives may be moved multiple times and several thousand miles per year"

There are other pollinators, for example, hoverflies as discussed recently in the woodland blog.  Though hoverflies carry out significant pollination activities across the world (perhaps up to 30%),  they are not as ‘single minded’ as bees in terms of their foraging activities.

However, there might be a way to encourage them to be more productive in orchards, and possibly crop fields - through the use of AI technology.   Firstly information has to be gathered about the number and type of pollinators present in an orchard / grower’s field.  This is then considered in relation to environmental factors (temperature etc.) in order to understand where there might be problems and to get an ‘index’ of ‘pollinator health’.  This enables workers to distribute AI devices which release natural chemical signals to which hoverflies, in particular, respond.  These natural,  volatile organic chemicals encourage the hoverflies to move towards specific areas so that the flies pick up and transfer more pollen.  Interestingly, there is some evidence that the hoverflies ‘encourage’ bees to become more efficient pollinators, possibly a competition effect.

Honey bee with pollen approaching hollyhock

It may be that this technology and hoverflies can be be used in polytunnels.  Polytunnels are used widely to grow various crops in the U.K. but bees are not always the most effective pollinators in these, so bumblebees have often been used.  However, they too are under threat and hoverflies might be a viable alternative as they are small enough to act as pollinators of flowers such as those of blueberry.

This synthesis of AI Technology and biological systems (OLOMBIA) has been developed from the Biodesign Challenge  2017 by Tashia Tucker.


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Friend or foe ? https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/friend-or-foe/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/friend-or-foe/#respond Thu, 29 Oct 2020 20:00:50 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34285

Honey bees face many threats - such viruses, mites and pesticides, but also threats from their own kind - robber bees.   When nectar becomes scarce at the end of the summer and into autumn, then bees will seek food wherever they can find it - like honey from other colonies.  From the robber bees ‘point of view’, this is simply another form of foraging behaviour.  This robbing of honey deprives a colony of an important winter resource.  

To limit this behaviour, hives have guard or gatekeeper bees, who ‘inspect’ all arriving bees.  But how do they know who is friend and who is foe?  Not being able to tell the difference could mean a long and lean winter, with little honey in the hive.  Honey bees can recognise members of their community / hive by detecting waxy chemicals present in their exoskeleton (cuticle) known as cuticular hydrocarbons (CHC’s).

Interestingly, the CHC’s that a bee possesses is a function of its microbiome.  The microbiome is the community of micro-organisms present in the gut. The bees in any given hive have a broadly similar microbiome, as a result of living together and sharing the same food sources so their ‘smell’ is similar.  It is this distinctive ‘smell’ that enables the guard bees to sense who does not belong to the hive.

The importance of the microbiome is now the subject of intense investigation.  Gut microbes are now recognised as being important in providing vitamins, helping digest food, regulating inflammation and keeping disease causing organisms in check - not only in humans, but many other animals.

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Tree planting again ….. https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/tree-planting-again/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-economics/tree-planting-again/#comments Fri, 23 Oct 2020 07:27:42 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=32811

The woodland’s blog has reported on various tree planting initiatives, particularly that presented by the CCC (Committee on Climate change).  This Committee has called for some 1.5 billion new trees to be planted by 2050.   This would require approximately 30,000 hectares of land to be planted each year.  If this were to happen, it would increase Britain’s forest / woodland cover from 13% to 19%; probably the highest level since Roman times.  Sir Harry Studholme, the outgoing chairman of the Forestry Commission has said that such a target is achievable but has urged caution so that mistakes of the past are not repeated. 

The 1970s and 1980s saw the intensive planting of vast areas of sitka spruce in parts of the Highlands, and in the Flow Country.  The latter was noted for its peat bogs - which now have much greater recognition in terms of carbon sequestration. Sir Harry has also said that it will be more difficult to achieve the levels of planting reached in the 1970s as this was encouraged through generous tax breaks, and using ‘cheap land’.  Much of this cheap land was in fact scenic upland and ecologically significant peat bogs and moorland.  Peat locks up large amounts of carbon.  If peat dries out, then it degrades and contributes to GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.

The Natural Capital Committee (NCC) has warned that planting trees in peat / moorland would be a bad move.  Similarly, using upland areas for tree planting would have a significant affect on the UK's ability to produce meat - leading to increased imports, unless there was an associated significant reduction in red meat consumption.  So, where is the land for tree planting to come ?   Using prime agricultural land not only would impact on crop production but would be expensive.  Taking fertile, agricultural land out of food production could be problematic in a post-Brexit era. Increasing the number of trees in urban and sub-urban areas is relatively uncontentious, indeed popular but there is a problem in how to substantially increase woodland and forest cover.

Then there is a problem of "what to plant ?"  The fast growing conifers that have been planted in the recent past have been used for fuel, timber for construction, fencing,  pallets, paper and packaging.  So whilst the trees locked away carbon (carbon sequestration through photosynthesis), with the exception of the timber use in construction - the carbon has only been 'locked away' for a limited period.  Fencing, pallets, packaging and paper have a limited life span before they degrade.  Planting more of such conifers will not address the issue of climate change.  Also, various organisations such as the RSPB have expressed concern about the impact of homogenous plantations on wildlife.

Charities such as the Friends of the Earth and the Woodland Trust are campaigning for more new trees – particularly broadleaved native woodland but it may be that 'exotic' and non-native species may be better suited to the changing climate of the UK and the spread of disease.  It is likely that a mix of species will be required to create resilient mixed species woodlands / plantations in an age of climate change and 'new' tree diseases.  Carefully chosen conifers or ‘exotic’ species (perhaps black walnut?) may grow quicker and consequently sequester more carbon, which is critical in terms of meeting the challenge of climate change.  

Planting considerations must include the mix of tree species in relation to factors such as the land, the soil, the topography and regional conditions.  Other factors might include factoring in how grey squirrels and / or deer could impact new planting, and whether or not to use plastic tree guards around the young trees.  Whilst we cannot recreate our ancient woodlands, we can ensure that the new wooded areas are not the eyesores on the landscape that the plantations of the last century created, nor subject to clear felling for the production of wood fuel or short lived consumable products.

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Results of the Big Butterfly Count 2020 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/results-of-the-big-butterfly-count-2020/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/results-of-the-big-butterfly-count-2020/#comments Fri, 16 Oct 2020 23:52:35 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34244

This year saw the lowest recorded numbers of butterflies in the count for over a decade. In fact, the count has has seen a reduction in the average number of butterflies logged in the count by approximately a third,  when compared to 2019.  However,1.4 million butterflies were counted across the UK and on a positive note, public participation was high.

There are always variations in the numbers year on year, for example,  last year’s numbers were swelled by an influx of the migratory painted lady butterfly. The decline in numbers this year could be due to various factors but the unusually warm spring meant that many species emerged earlier than usual.  This may mean that the actual count took place at the ‘tail end’ of the flight period of the butterflies.

The top ten butterflies were :-













If you are interested in butterflies and their activity throughout the year, then you might be interested to download the free iRecord Butterflies app. Every sighting counts towards understanding how butterfly (and other insects) numbers are changing.

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October Fungi Focus: The Sulphur Knight (Tricholoma sulphureum) https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/october-fungi-focus-the-sulphur-knight-tricholoma-sulphureum/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/october-fungi-focus-the-sulphur-knight-tricholoma-sulphureum/#comments Wed, 14 Oct 2020 23:12:06 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=34223

There is something quite exhilarating about the smell of autumn, and I immediately picked up on it on my first evening woodland walk after the Autumn equinox a few weeks back. The earthy richness that hits the nostrils as your feet scuffle through the newly fallen leaves, and the overwhelmingly sharp freshness of the damp air tinged with the lingering perfume of ivy seems to reawaken the senses after the torpor of Summer. Camus put it nicely when he wrote, “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” 

Smell is a sense that is often overlooked when it comes to identifying fungi, although any encounter with a stinkhorn, its viscid dark green tip (or gleba) swarming with flies attracted by its ripe miasma, is proof enough of the importance of these chemical signals in the spore dispersal process.

The Common Stinkhorn is as recognisable due to its foul smell as it is by its obscene form

The Common Stinkhorn is as recognisable due to its foul smell as it is by its obscene form

Other species’ fruitbodies have more fragrant aromas associated with them, and it does often pay to take a healthy good sniff when checking your finds against the pages of possible candidates in your field guides. Odour (or aroma, depending on which way you look at it) is often provided as a descriptive field in books such as Geoffrey Kibby’s beautifully illustrated two-volume Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe (whose third edition came out this year), and provides a very useful guideline in many instances.

This group of Aniseed Funnel have yet to develop their distinctive funnel shapes and blue-grey tinge but the scent is unmistakable

This group of Aniseed Funnel have yet to develop their distinctive funnel shapes and blue-grey tinge but the scent is unmistakable

The Aniseed Funnel (Clitocybe odora), for example, might not be quite as funnel-shaped as its name suggests in the early stages of its fruitbodies’ growth and their characteristic blue-green colour, with a yellowing centre to the cap, not quite as developed. Nevertheless, if you do chance upon a group of this common species dotted around in the litter in broadleaf habitats and you have your suspicions, then taking a good whiff of the thin white flesh will probably swing your identification for you. 

This tell-tale aniseed scent is due to the presence of two strong-smelling organic compounds in the fruiting bodies, 4-Anisaldehyde and benzaldehyde, the latter used as in synthetic almond flavourings. It wouldn’t be too much of a leap of the imagination to infer then that their smell must serve some evolutionary purpose in attracting squirrels or other creatures to aid in the distribution of their spores. 

Variable in appearance but consistent in scent, the Aniseed Funnel

Variable in appearance but consistent in scent, the Aniseed Funnel

In a post from last year, I mentioned that squirrels seem to love harvesting the various types of russulas, or brittlegill mushrooms, that would be considered far too peppery or acrid for human consumption. Russulas are out in force in October, but one is hard-pressed to find pristine specimens. More likely than not, you’ll find them upended with large bite-sized chunks missing, and often left to dry on top of tree stumps, presumably to be eaten later. The smells of the Autumn woodland also coincide with unique sounds of squirrels frantically scuffling around out of eyeshot as they gather in supplies and fatten themselves up for the winter season, so one might assume that such a nutty dimension to the smell of the Aniseed Funnel must play an important part in the squirrels locating them.

Smell in humans seems to have much more a subjective dimension than in squirrels. One of my fellow foragers described the whiff of the Aniseed Funnel as more like Play-Doh, although this too makes kind of sense. Apparently the toy manufacturer Hasbro recently tried to trademark its “unique scent formed through the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry”, and Wikipedia does indeed claim that 4-Anisaldehyde, “being structurally related to vanillin, 4-anisaldehyde is a widely used in the fragrance and flavor industry”. Something to ponder upon, in any case, but Aniseed Funnel is just one of a few more distinctive smelling fungi that might evoke certain individual memories. Another is the Curry Milkcap, which smells less of the curries we know nowadays and more of mothballs. What squirrels make of this is open to question.

Another distinctive smelling mushroom, the Curry Milkcap.

Another distinctive smelling mushroom, the Curry Milkcap.

Smell nevertheless plays a useful role in identifying the hundreds of species in the russula group, however, rather than their bright and often very similar cap colours. In last year’s October Fungi Focus, I detailed Ochre Brittlegill (Russula ochroleuca) as one of the most commonly found yellow capped russulas. There are plenty of similarly coloured ones, however, such as the Geranium Brittlegill (Russula fellea). 

There are a few physical differences to this one. The stem seems to be a little thicker than the Ochre Brittlegill, and usually thicker at the base. Furthermore, the cap is described by First Nature as “honey yellow but sometimes tawny-buff or orange towards the cap centre” and in The Fungi of Temperate Europe (2019) as “a rather uniform buff to cinnamon-buff colour” while the Ochre Brittlegill is “ochre-yellow” in both sources. As one can see, there is plenty of scope for overlap, however, but in terms of colouration, the main difference is that while the latter has white flesh and whitish gills, the buff colour is also present to a degree on the gills and stem of the Geranium Brittlegill.

The Geranium Brittlegill can be confused with other species like the Ochre Brittle until one takes a sniff at one

The Geranium Brittlegill can be confused with other species like the Ochre Brittle until one takes a sniff at one

The failsafe way to distinguish them is to sniff the gills. The Geranium Brittlegill, aka the Geranium Scented Russula, as its name suggests, smells of geraniums (well, actually pelargoniums if we want to be more precise!) or, once more highlighting the degree of subjectivity in the olfactory senses, some sources say stewed apples. It is important to bear in mind also that smell is no indication of taste with any fungi. Another alternate common name sometimes applied to Russula fellea is the Bitter Russula, and indeed, one can really consider much of this group inedible.

It is also worth mentioning the other identifying features of russulas. First is that they form symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships with trees, growing on the root system, and are thus found growing from the ground beneath their host tree, rather than on rotting wood. Moreover their distinctive colours are restricted to the cap cuticle, which grows as a skin-like layer on the topside of their caps known as the pileipellis. The flesh itself (trama), like the gills, is white or just off-white. 

The Ochre Brittlegill has white whiter flesh than the more buff-coloured Geranium Brittlegill but also lacks a distinctive smell

The Ochre Brittlegill has white whiter flesh than the more buff-coloured Geranium Brittlegill but also lacks a distinctive smell

These factors set them apart from seemingly similar species like the Sulphur Tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare) that are sprouting up in large clumps all over the place at the moment, and whose flesh is sulphur yellow and whose gills have a sickly green tinge to them that increases with age. One certainly shouldn’t need to resort to ones nose to recognise a Sulphur Tuft, whose odour First Nature describes as “mushroomy but undistinctive”.

There is one further smallish yellow mushroom however, around the same 3-8cm diameter, bearing the similar name of the Sulphur Knight (Tricholoma sulphureum), whose aroma renders it immediately recognisable. It is another mycorrhizal type found on the ground like the russulas, but its flesh, stem and gills are a uniform colour with its cap, described in The Fungi of Temperate Europe as “warm yellow to greenish yellow”. 

The Sulphur Knight has bright sulphurous yellow gills, flesh, cap and stem as well as a distinctly sulphurous smell.

The Sulphur Knight has bright sulphurous yellow gills, flesh, cap and stem as well as a distinctly sulphurous smell.

Like the brittlegills, it leaves a white spore deposit when a print is taken, which is another way of setting it apart from Suphur Tufts, but in the case of the Sulphur Knight, the name was not only coined in reference to its vibrant yellow hues, but due to the eye-watering naphthalene stench that accounts for some of its other common names, the Gasworks Mushroom or the Gas Agaric. The Sulphur Knight truly reeks of burning gas or coal in a way that alone renders it instantly recognisable among any of the aforementioned mushrooms, as well as its closest lookalike, the Yellow Knight (Tricholoma equestre).

These are but a few examples of the various mushrooms one might find around at this time of year that stand out from the crowd due to their smells. We might checklist a few others too, like the soapy smelling Soapy Knight (Tricholoma Saponaceum) or the equally obviously named Stinking Brittlegill (Russula foetens), described by First Nature as possessing “a rancid oily smell that with age becomes more like rotting fish.”   All of these produce a heady cocktail of organic compounds that alone or in combination all contribute to the unique aromas that permeate Autumn.

The foul-smelling Sulphur Knight

The foul-smelling Sulphur Knight

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