Who goes there, friend or foe?

OCTOBER has arrived with a vengeance, Storm Alex wreaking havoc across the country and depositing a month’s worth of rain in some areas over the weekend.

Those venturing out during gaps in the deluge have seen something of a transformation, with the storms stripping leaves off trees and the autumn colours of browns, reds and golden yellows replacing the green of late summer.

While the shops already gearing up for Halloween, the woods are awash with fallen acorns and apples, lichens, mushrooms and toadstools.

Amid the dripping leaves of Burnham Beeches, it’s suddenly a strange new world of unusual textures, shadows and colours.

The ferns are turning brown, along with the trees, an early hint of the glories to come later in the month as the autumnal colour palette really begins to explode.

Down at the ponds the stunning colours of the mandarin ducks stand out against the muddy browns, greys and blacks of tree roots and rain-spattered water.

But it’s at ground level that the real stars of the show can be found, with a small cross-section of the country’s 15,000-odd species of fungi providing an intriguing range of shapes and colours among the soaking foliage.

Not that the uninitiated will want to get too close to some of these amazing-looking fungi: some of them are deadly and boast spine-tingling names like the destroying angel, funeral bell and death cap.

Fungi live everywhere and vary in size from the microscopic to the largest organisms on earth. But perhaps we are most intrigued not just by their beauty, but the deadly consequences of dabbling with the most poisonous of them.

We instantly recognise the familiar scarlet cap of the fly agaric toadstool, which both attracts and kills flies, or the Scarlet elf cups or fairies’ baths, which make a tiny puffing sound when they release their spores into the air.

But on decaying branches and in damp spots scattered around the woodland floor there are an array of others whose offputting appearance may only be matched by their sinister names, like jelly ear fungus, foul-smelling stinkhorns or toxic beechwood sickener.

Or what about the gruesome beefsteak fungus, which looks like a raw cut of meat and even oozes a blood-like substance when cut…or the brown roll-rim, a common birch woodland fungus that looks benign, but is deadly poisonous.

Not that it’s all about innocent-looking killers. As well as many fungi being edible, some have medicinal properties, like the candlesnuff fungus, which is both anti-viral and active against tumours, or other uses like the common inkcap, once a source of ink for important documents.

Lichens play an important role in the ecology of woodlands too, offering valuable microhabitats, shelter and food for various small invertebrates which in turn are prey for larger insects and birds.

They can also be hosts for other species of parasitic fungi, as well as providing other ecosystem services such as carbon cycling and water retention.

Most organisms lack the ability to digest wood and return the nutrients to the soil, but fungi figured out the secret a few hundred million years ago. A good thing too, or otherwise dead trees would just pile up everywhere.

But down here among the lichens and leaf debris, could you spot the difference between a prized chef’s ingredient like a chanterelle or charcoal burner, and a deathcap, which has been used as a murder weapon for millenia?

Notable alleged victims of death cap poisoning range from Charles VI, ruler of the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy, to the Roman Emperor Claudius.

Voltaire even wrote that a dish of mushrooms had changed the destiny of Europe, since the death of Charles VI led to the War of the Austrian Secession from 1740.

The Woodland Trust does offer a handy guide to some of the most common fungi and lichens, coupled with some fascinating legends and facts – but even professionals can get things wrong, it seems: the distinguished German mycologist Julius Schaeffer died in 1944 after eating a succession of dishes containing brown roll-rim mushrooms.

In the ancient woodlands managed by the City of London Corporation, fungi have a vital role to play in the delicate balance of biodiversity, and in sites like Epping Forest commercial pickers – who can face prosecution – have been stripping the forest of wild mushrooms, depriving insects and animals of a valuable food source and threatening rare species.

Much maligned and mistrusted, toadstools and mushrooms are associated with ancient taboos, death and decomposition, but they have magical associations too and are nature’s natural recyclers, playing a vital role in the ecology of natural habitats like Burnham Beeches.

Down in the woods, hundreds of them are hard at work breaking down decaying organic matter and providing food for squirrels, deer and insects. It’s wonderful to see the fascinating shapes, forms and colours the fungi world has to offer – and yes, of course we want to leave them there for the next visitor to enjoy.

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