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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

Grassland Fungi in Caithness (by David Savage)

In a previous article (Caithness Field Club Bulletin Vol 7 No 1 (April 2005) ) we looked at the more obvious fungi to be found in Dunnet forest. This time we will look at some of the fungi to be found in the rough grazing areas of Caithness.

One of the best local places to find grassland fungi is at Crosskirk. We will start by following the sign for St. Mary's Chapel, through the gate and along the track past the cottage. Keeping an eye on the grass banks beside the track we should soon spot some large (3 to 7cm) deep cherry red fungi. They have a greasy bell shaped cap, and a coarsely fibrous stem in shades of orange. Their gills ascend under the cap, are yellow to orange and will release white spores. These are Hygrocybe punicea, one of the waxcap group of fungi, and are typical of grazed, unimproved grasslands.

Life Sized Sketches Of Some Grassland Fungi

The banks to either side of the track as it drops to the Salmon bothy support a variety of other members of the waxcap group. The steepest slopes usually provide the largest numbers of fungi. Colours can be red, yellow, orange, grey or white, with most under 3cm in diameter. The most easily named (all with white spores) are:

Meadow waxcap; Camarophyllus (or Hygrocybe) pratensis 3 to 8cm orangey-buff, shield shaped, matt textured caps with pale gills descending well down a pale, stout stem.

Blackening waxcap; Hygrocybe conica (synonym; Hygrocybe nigrescens) 2 to 5cm sharply conic caps in any shade of orange from yellow to red. They blacken when bruised, most readily at the stem base, more slowly on the gills and cap. Either wind or rain can cause natural bruising to the whole fruit body, or just the exposed side. (The most widely obvious waxcap within Caithness)

Scarlet waxcap; Hygrocybe coccinea 2 to 5cm domed to convex, bright red, greasy caps and a smooth red stem.

Snowy waxcap; Camarophyllus (or Hygrocybe) nivea 1 to 3cm flattish, white, greasy caps with white gills descending well down the stem. (The last waxcap to appear each year, but probably the most widespread within Caithness)

Parrot waxcap; Hygrocybe psittacina 1 to 3 cm domed to convex caps which are green when very fresh but very quickly become peach, buff or yellow in colour. The telltale green persists at the top of the stem and on the gills where they join the cap flesh. Both cap and stem are very slimy except when very dry.

Hygrocybe chlorophana 2 to 5cm convex, bright yellow, greasy caps with a smooth yellow stem.

Hygrocybe laeta 2 to 5cm very slimy, convex, peachy-buff cap and stem. The gills descend slightly down the stem and have a characteristic translucent white edge. Often in large colonies.

Hygrocybe unguinosa 2 to 5 cm pale grey cap and stem, both of which are sticky when fresh.

A number of smaller, or less easily named, waxcaps are also present at Crosskirk, mostly in shades of red or yellow. Also one or other of the rarest waxcaps can be found there occasionally. If we are really lucky we might find the unmistakable Ballerina (Hygrocybe calyptraeformis) with its pale pink sharply conic 3 to 7cm caps on a tall white stem.

The waxcaps are indicators of unimproved grasslands although their exact relationship within the grassland community is still uncertain. They can be found on small odd corners at scattered locations throughout Caithness, in short mossy grass. They are often on steep banks or sandy soils, but that may reflect the absence of past cultivation rather than the improved drainage of such places. Other good locations for waxcaps which are easy to access, and where a Ballerina can be found very occasionally, include;

Beside the river at Westerdale bridge;

Beside the path along Dunbeath river, just before the gorge;

Beside the path to the Cairn of Get.

The waxcaps have become very uncommon in most of Europe, including southern England, because of habitat loss. They are a prime European conservation target. None can withstand soil cultivation, or high levels of nitrate. They are very slow to re-colonise suitable habitat. A few of the most common species are now present in reasonable numbers on some of the open plan lawns of Thurso's Pennyland estate, 50 years after disturbance. But many areas of apparently ideal rough grazing on once cultivated land are still devoid of waxcaps, perhaps 80 or more years since last cultivation. Unfortunately, their Caithness habitat is also under pressure, with sites disappearing under long grasses or bracken due to reduced grazing, and also due to tree planting.

So this autumn make a special effort to find and admire these increasingly rare, brightly coloured fungi while they are still plentiful in Caithness. They typically fruit prolifically over a three week period around early October, although exact timing is weather dependent. A wet summer will produce a few fruit bodies from late July onwards, but with a reduced peak. A frost free Autumn following a dry Summer and a few may be found into December.

Other families of fungi also inhabit grasslands. Large enough to see easily when present are the mushrooms (Agaricus species), which all need richer soils than the waxcaps, so they are not usually found together. Various species grow in Caithness, including the field mushroom (Agaricus campestris) with pink young gills, and the horse mushroom (Agaricus arvensis) with greyish-white young gills. As with all Agaricus species, their gills will turn chocolate brown as their spores mature. But be warned, the uncommon, inedible Entoloma pruniloides grows alongside the mushrooms at a few places in Caithness, and can look superficially similar. However, its white gills turn dingy pink as it matures because it pink spores.

Most other grassland fungi are small, and difficult to identify beyond their family group even with a microscope. Many produce dull pink spores and belong to the Entoloma family. One sub group of this family are the Leptonia, well represented in unimproved grassland within Caithness, but distinctly uncommon in much of Britain. They have 2 to 3cm shallowly convex caps with a pronounced central depression (umbilicate) which are usually radially fibrous to slightly scaly. Cap colours are all shades of brown from black to white, including reds and yellows. Some of them look quite striking when seen close up.

Wherever mosses are present, a variety of buff to rust coloured fungi can usually be found. With 0.5 to 2cm domed to convex caps producing rust coloured spores, most are members of the Galerina family. Fungi of similar size and shape, but with grey to white colours and producing white spores, are likely to be members of the Mycena family.

Any place that herbivores graze will host dung-dependant fungi. During a wet spell from spring until late autumn they can appear on dung, enriched soil, and sometimes on rotting hay. Most produce black spores, and are pale buff coloured. The commonest, with a sticky stem and a domed, sticky, 1 to 2cm cap, is the Dung Roundhead (Stropharia semiglobata). Much more obvious when present, but much less common and confined exclusively to cowpats, is Panaeolus semiovatus. Its 3 to 6cm bell shaped cap looks like it has been varnished, and stands proudly on a long stiff stem.

Some of the grassland fungi have a totally different body pattern to the conventional mushroom shape of a cap with spore bearing gills below, supported on a distinct stem. Instead they grow as long, narrow, spindle to club shaped, cylinders from 2 to 10cm long. They produce spores on the outside of these clubs. Often the cylinders are rather flattened to give an oval section, and have either pointed or enlarged tops.

The most easily found are the Fairy Clubs (Clavaria family) as they are mostly yellow or white. Most species produce solitary clubs, which are surprisingly easy to overlook unless they are in close packed colonies, while a few produce dense tufts. Anyone fortunate enough to find a 50 strong cluster of the 8cm tall, golden yellow clubs of Golden Spindles (Clavulinopsis fusiformis) will remember them for years.

The 2 to 4cm black clubs of the Earth Tongues (Geoglossum species) fruit quite widely in Caithness, mostly in November, and are probably more plentiful than the Fairy Clubs. They are very hard to spot, particularly in rough grasses. However some of the lawns on the Pennyland estate produce a regular crop, and if the grass is well mown a good colony is occasionally more obvious.

Thus fungi are no less common on unimproved grasslands than they are in local woodlands, they are just smaller, with many less easy to see. So this autumn, go out and see them for yourselves. Hopefully the following life sized sectional sketches of a selection of typical grassland fungi, in prime condition, will help you understand the descriptions. Of course fungi vary throughout there life. They start small, grow up to be slightly different to each other, develop middle age spread as their cap expands, and finally grow old. Rather like ourselves.

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