The following extract from an article by Jonathan Guest, first published in the Cheshire Conservation Trust’s autumn newsletter, is a timely illustration of the topic raised by Bruce Ing in his talk (‘Conservation of Fungi is Important’ ) at the 1995 North West Fungus Group AGM and reported in the March 1995 Newsletter and is of particular interest in the light of the 1996 Waxcap-Grassland Survey.

In the past, the two most widespread traditional grassland management strategies were meadow and pasture, the former being shut up for hay during most of the growing season, the latter grazed throughout. Conservationists have always concentrated on meadow grassland since this is richer in flowering plants, and it is usually meadows that are alluded to when people talk of traditional management. Such meadow species as birdsfoot trefoil, knapweed, ox-eye daisy and creeping cinquefoil fade out when a meadow is grazed through successive summers, so permanent pasture, no matter how ancient, fails to attract the attention that it deserves.

If the weakness of traditional pastures lies in their lack of showy meadow flowers, their strengths are less immediately obvious. Grassland fungi are among the most neglected of creatures where conservation is concerned. One of the negative aspects of the scientific ethos which guides the formulation of conservation policy is that until populations of species can be measured and found to be threatened, little or nothing will be done to help them. It seems that many naturalists, from whose numbers conservationists are often drawn, value rare species far more highly than common ones, and that the common must become rare before they are valued. With such creatures as grassland fungi, which reveal their presence only during the brief part of their life cycles when they are fruiting, recording their distribution is a hit and miss affair. The best that can be done is to identify the grasslands which have an interesting fungus flora.

As a general rule, those grasslands which have been intensively treated with agricultural chemicals will have relatively few fungi, their absence being symptomatic of the ill health of the soil. Where organic matter in the soil is in short supply, fungi starve, even if there are no more adverse effects from the presence of synthetic chemicals. Kneel down on a short-term grass ley and you will have no trouble finding bare soil among the roots. What most fungi prefer is the dense springy sward of permanent pasture where the mat of vegetation provides food and humidity. Those who seek fungi in our pastures can ignore the brightest, nitrate-green fields.

By far the best area of the County in which to find grassland fungi is in the Pennine foothills. Here much of the sheep pasture retains a diverse flora, although even these fields are being reseeded at a frightening rate with fertiliser-addicted rye grass - one of the most obvious manifestations of our drug culture. The poorest, more acidic grasslands, of tussocky mat grass (Nardus stricta), hold rather few species, and the wetter purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) moors, often on shallow peat, are inhospitable to fungi. Where common bent (Agrostis capillaris), creeping and sheep’s fescue (Festuca rubra and F. ovina) predominate, however, often with wavy hair grass (Deschampsia flexuosa) and crested dog’s tail (Cynosurus cristatus), a wide range of wax caps, fairy clubs and earth tongues can be found.

Other fungus-rich grassland types include the mixed crested dog’s tail and ryegrass pastures of the lowlands and those transitional between these and the upland types. The most familiar of all edible fungi, the field mushroom (Agaricus campestris), is especially characteristic of these lowland pastures, which now survive chiefly on sloping fields at the edge of river valleys. I once filled two large carrier bags in such a field near Wilmslow. In good years, with morning dews following a hot summer, it can be difficult to know when to stop, for picking is as much fun as eating. As the fields themselves are progressively fertilised or reseeded, however, mushrooms are increasingly scarce.

Botanists enthuse over flowery meadows. Tedious hill pastures on shale, with acre after acre of wiry grass, bits of heath bedstraw and tormentil, but few other flowers, attract little interest; but these pastures ‘flower’ in autumn when the fruiting bodies of fungi appear.

In the time of Henry VIII, an inquisition post mortem listed the holdings of Peter Legh in Lyme Handley, the parish which corresponds very largely to the present extent of Lyme Park. There were 50 acres of land (presumably arable), 40 of meadow, 1000 of woodland 2000 of moor. This adds up to roughly the present day parish. There ought to be some remnants of this woodland area within the Park. Indeed there are, but we should be wary lest we allow our preconceptions to run away with us. The park had held red and fallow deer and wild cattle from medieval times. The woodland must have been very open and grassy, with scattered trees as well as more carefully managed woods. It appears that the great diversity of fungi within the park has its origins in this landscape of woodland pasture which must have extended over much of the Cheshire Pennine foothills into historic times. It may be that the few remaining tracts of fungus-rich grasslands in lowland Cheshire pin-point relics of this ancient habitat type.

There are those fungi which grow on the dung of sheep and deer, helping to re-cycle their nutrients to the soil; there are mycorrhizal species which grow attached to the roots of trees especially in open, grazed woodlands or at the edge of pastures; and there are many saprophytic species which somehow feed on organic matter at various stages of decomposition within the soil.

The dung fungi in Lyme Park vary from tiny Coprinus species which grow on the individual pellets of rabbit or sheep dung, through to the brilliant white snowy ink cap (Coprinus niveus) and the medium-sized mottlegills (Panaeolus rickenii and P. sphinctrinus) up to the large Panaeolus semiovatus which grows in clusters on cowpats and is recognisable by the thin ring on its slender stem, and by the cap which is the shape of half of a rather small hen’s egg. The grassland saprophytes include colourful wax caps such as Hygrocybe coccinea, H. pratensis, H. chlorophana, H. nivea and the relatively drab H. unguinosa. There are the various fairy clubs, such as Clavaria vermicularis, Clavulinopsis fusiformis and C corniculata, and the curious earth tongue, Trichoglossum hirsutum. Years ago I was struck by the coincidental occurrence of this last species on and around the 1000 ft contour. Since then I have found it both lower down at around 850 ft and up at 1350 ft. It appears to occupy that zone of grassland, derived from woodland, where common bent and sheep’s fescue predominate.

In the eastern hills there are still many patches of fungus grassland, usually on steep slopes and especially running down to wooded cloughs where birches and oak still seed into pasture, albeit on a smaller scale than Lyme Park, and they, too, have uncommon fungi such as Russula lutea and Boletus lanatus.

Unimproved acidic grassland has all but disappeared from lowland Cheshire. To my knowledge, the only surviving tract of any extent is within Tatton Park. Around Melchett Mere there are areas of mat grass and of fescue/common bent grassland closely similar to those occurring in the foothills to the east. The latter type grades into grassland of perennial ryegrass and crested dogstail, giving a good cross-section of the county’s pasture types within a small area. On 10 October 1993 we visited the Park to look at grassland fungi and list the species found within the different grassland types.

As in the hills, the richest flora was found within the fescue/bent areas. Here we found nine species of wax caps including Hygrocybe subradiatus, which I had not seen elsewhere, amongst a total of 30 types. Amongst the tussocks of mat grass only Mycena fibula was found. This is a very common species which grows among moss, adding interest to many a garden lawn. 28 species were listed as growing in the dogstail and ryegrass pasture including eight wax cap species. Are there other fragments of fungus grassland left in the county, perhaps in the more secluded parks? October and November are the months to look.

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