The frontier land of Northumberland is the finest in England for first-class fungi, according to a two-year study.
The results of the survey carried out by Northumberland National Park Authority grasslands along Hadrian’s Wall has revealed the area to be the best place in England for variety of fungi species.
This places the Wall grasslands in a position of international importance for the habitat type that fungi favour.
Most of the showiest toadstools belong to a group known as waxcaps, which are fungi of unimproved grassland often rich in moss and grazed by livestock.
They are indicators of an ancient landscape that has had little ploughing or fertilizer added.
Waxcaps come in an array of bright, jewel-like colours and sport romantic names like Splendid, Persistent, Ballerina, Oily and Honey.
Over the last two years, 25km of the grassland alongside the Wall from Walwick to Greenhead in the national park has been surveyed for grassland fungi.
Last year’s wet summer was surprisingly unhelpful for the toadstools, which do not like too much rain, but excellent results were still recorded from the stretch under scrutiny, showing it to be nationally important and with three sites proving to be internationally rich.
The survey involved mycologists Liz Holden and Andy McClay as well as Hadrian’s Wall and national park volunteers, with walkers and farmers invited to submit sightings.
Waxcaps have been described as the orchids of the fungi world and are easy to spot by their vivid colours, which range from yellows, reds, oranges and pinks to mauves, greys, whites, browns, blacks and greens.
They have thick waxy gills and the stems are often the same colour as the cap. They have a high water content within a waterproof waxy layer.
Some are covered with a slimy layer on the cap which enable them to survive drying winds. Waxcaps appear from September to November, although fruiting times are affected by weather conditions.
They may appear on a site one year but not the next, with the exact conditions which induce spores to germinate still a mystery.
Although this year has been warm and dry, the autumn rain is prompting a great crop of waxcaps in Northumberland.
A mix of these brilliant fungi at any one site indicates grassland dating back hundreds of years.
A particularly rare fungi has just been discovered by Maria Hindmarsh, project officer for the Hadrian’s Wall Community Champions Project.
She found the Violet Coral fungus at a site near Steel Rigg on Hadrian’s Wall while out with a group on one of the initiative’s free public “exploration” days.
The purple Clavaria zollingeri, or Violet Coral, is common in parts of North America but is especially rare in Britain. Andy McClay, who led the group, said: “Violet Coral is so rare in this country that it shouldn’t be gathered except for essential research.
“I had joked to the group before we set out that we would do well to find that particular fungus because I hadn’t found it at the Steel Rigg site despite three years of searching.
“You can imagine my delight when Maria showed me what she’d found.
“Hadrian’s Wall is internationally important for its waxcap populations and the presence of the Violet Coral fully confirms the outstanding conservation value of this particular grassland, where 28 species of waxcaps also occur.”
The Hadrian’s Wall Community Champions Project is funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund and led by Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.
The project offers ways for people of all backgrounds to explore the world heritage site.
One of the programme’s long-term goals is to offer local people the chance to play a role in the management, protection and promotion
of the world heritage site. Kerry Shaw, project co-ordinator, said: “It’s exciting that a group of people local to the Wall have been involved in such an unusual and important find.
“At the start of the day they were beginners and by the end they were able to spot a species which is incredibly significant and part of the landscape of the world heritage site.” Initial surveys of other parts of the national park have shown more sites rich in fungi.
Last year a field near Greenhaugh in Tarset was discovered to have three very rare members of the waxcap family.
The uplands of Northumberland National Park have an underlying geology whereby rock is often close to the surface, which means that intensive agricultural practices involving ploughing or intensive fertilisation have historically rarely been appropriate.
In these areas land use has been restricted to grazing for sheep, cattle or horses. Where such grazing has persisted on unimproved grassland, the soil profiles and low nutrient levels will have been in place for several hundreds of years.
These areas are potentially outstanding for their waxcap grassland fungi and can form hotspots.
A waxcap and rare fungus spotter can be downloaded from the national park website, www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk/waxcapsurvey together with the survey report and instructions on how to contribute to the ongoing waxcap survey across the park.
For more information about how to sign up for the free Exploration events or to join the volunteering programme, contact Kerry Shaw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alternatively, call 0191 277 2335.