Fabulous fungi lurk amid the fallen leaves

IT’S the month of first frosts and stormy nights when the sights, smells and sounds of autumn really bring the countryside to life.

RICH PALETTE: colour contrasts in Penn Woods PICTURE: Gel Murphy

The rapidly-changing colours and glorious textures of October make it a favourite with photographers, especially deep in the woods where the yellow, green and russet hues contrast so beautifully with the rugged outlines of ancient trees.

LEAF MAGIC: striking outlines at Penn PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

It’s also a month of ripe berries and falling fruit, with trees and bushes bursting with tasty treats for birds, insects and mammals alike and a huge array of startling fungi hiding beneath the fallen leaves.

FIERY FLAME: the yellow stagshorn PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

From the foul-smelling stinkhorns to poisonous toadstools, it’s thought there are more than six million species of fungi in the world, and we’re only really beginning to fully appreciate what an impact they have on our lives.

MUSHROOM MAGIC: fungi come in all colours PICTURE: Ken Law

They can change our minds, heal our bodies and even help us to avoid environmental disaster, as Merlin Sheldrake showed us in his fascinating 2020 book Entangled Life.

DELICATE OUTLINE: a saffrondrop bonnet PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

But although we may have only formally identified around 150,000 of the millions of fungi out there, they are a source of fascination for photographers and nature lovers alike.

FASCINATING: texture contrasts at Hughenden PICTURE: Ken Law

The colours and shapes fascinate us, even though we know their beauty can be deceptive and that there could be deadly consequences of dabbling with the most poisonous of them.

SUBTLE TONES: an amethyst deceiver PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

They vary in size from the microscopic to the largest organisms on earth and boast the most intriguing array of sinister-sounding names, from gelatinous jelly ears to toxic beechwood sickeners.

SPINY OUTLINE: a puffball in Bisham Woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The glorious array of shapes and textures is a reminder that it’s now three years since we first asked local photographers to share some of their favourite pictures of the local landscape and wildlife in our monthly calendar feature: and what a joy those pictures have been.

MORNING LIGHT: Raans Farm, Amersham PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Back in October 2020, with half the country still in lockdown, the natural world was providing a vital escape from the stresses and strains of mask wearing and social distancing – and for many, offering an absolutely essential boost to mental health.

IN THE PINK: a bench at Penn Wood in 2020 PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Three years on, there may not be quite as many families exploring the local woods any more, but the natural world is still a lifeline to millions, an escape from the stresses and strains of frantic modern living and the all-pervasive hubbub of social media.

TOXIC TOADSTOOL: fly agarics in Penn Wood PICTURE: Andrew Knight

As Peak District photographer Suzanne Howard – better known as @peaklass on her social media feeds – recently posted: “Sometimes, when the world is too noisy and sad, it helps to walk into the kaleidoscope of an autumn country lane. To hear nothing but your footsteps and the leaves falling, and to feel the solidity of old trees arching their boughs over you. I hope everyone can find their lane.”

MOMENT OF CALM: leaves falling at Penn PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Nature writer Melissa Harrison picks up on the theme of sound in her book The Stubborn Light of Things. She writes: “Sound is such a vital part of our relationship with nature, and yet – apart from birdsong – it’s so easily overlooked.”


Marvelling at the silence surrounding her country cottage in rural Suffolk, she wrote: “For most of our history, total silence – and total darkness – would have been nothing unusual at all.

PEACEFUL SPOT: mushrooms at Penn PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

“This new quietness has made me more aware of sound , from the mysterious creature which processes across my roof each night to the rain gurgling relentlessly in the gutters and the noise the wind makes as it rushes through the last of the ash leaves, tattered and yellowing.”

SENSE OF CONNECTION: footpaths at Latimer PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

For Chris Packham, society’s increasing physical and cultural separation from nature is a crisis of disconnection that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, as he outlined in his book Back To nature, co-authored with stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

RUTTING SEASON: Windsor Great Park PICTURE: Leslie Tilson

Not that Beyonder readers need any reminder of the importance of maintaining our familiarity with the great outdoors, but that’s not to say it’s always easy. Life gets in the way and health problems or work commitments may make it harder to get out and about on a rainy day, and easier to procrastinate when dusk starts falling fast and the temperatures drop.

SUNSET SILHOUETTE: stags at Grangelands in 2020 PICTURE: Anne Rixon

But making the extra effort is always worth it, and our photographers have been braving the elements at all times of the day over the past three years.

We’ve included a couple of our favourite shots from our October post in 2020 along with links to some of our regular contributors, but we are always on the lookout for new members who can help expand our coverage of the local area.

INTRICATE PATTERN: a spider’s web PICTURE: Gel Murphy

By the end of October, houses across the Chilterns are bedecked with cobwebs, witches and carved pumpkin lanterns to welcome the little parties of ghouls and ghosts trotting round to see their neighbours, a prelude to the noisy parties of Bonfire Night.

PARTY SEASON: getting in the Halloween spirit PICTURE: Nicole Burrell

But away from the welcoming lights and lanterns, from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, this is an ancient and fascinating landscape with thousands of hidden pathways, Roman roads and drovers’ routes to explore – and we’re grateful, as always, to those hardy souls who are out and about in all weathers capturing the beauty of the local countryside in all its glory.

If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature in a future post, drop us a line by email to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK or Instagram at thebeyonderuk.

Fungus foray reveals the secrets of survival

SOARING temperatures and flash floods marked a summer where climate change concerns were never far from people’s minds.

BLAZE OF COLOUR: sunflowers at Chesham PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

So after an unseasonally mild October, perhaps it’s a relief to finally feel the chill in the air on a starry Chilterns November night.

SEPTEMBER SKIES: birds on the wing outside Amersham PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Back in the hot, dry summer, temperatures soared to a new UK record temperature of 40.3C in Lincolnshire and much of the local countryside looked brown and parched, with hosepipe bans in place across large areas.

EARLY START: morning mist creates an inviting haze PICTURE: Gel Murphy

The joint warmest summer on record for England, and the fourth driest, it meant wildlife enthusiasts having to rise early to catch the countryside at its best before the searing heat of the midday sun.

FEELING CHIRPY: a stonechat at Widbrook Common PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

It takes patience and perseverance at the best of times to capture our native species on camera, but all the more so when they are taking refuge from such unpleasant heat.

POLLEN COUNT: hundreds of insect species pollinate plants PICTURE: Gel Murphy

What a delight, then, to savour the mellower temperatures of autumn and watch the sights, sounds and smells slowly switching to a different pace and palette.

AUTUMN HUES: trees start to lose their leaves PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

Suddenly it’s crisper and colder in the mornings and darker evenings, though the woods are ablaze with colour as families look out their scarves and winter coats to make the most of the seasonal spectacle.

SILENT SWOOP: a short-eared owl in Oxfordshire PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

With Autumnwatch back on our screens and pumpkins suddenly swamping the shelves of local farm shops, a host of animals and birds are stocking up for the winter months.

SEASONAL SPECTACLE: woods are awash with colour PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

And from the banks of the Thames to Ivinghoe Beacon, there’s no better time of year to venture outdoors to smell the ripening fruits and admire the beauty of the leaves as they change colour. 

SUNNY FACES: sunflowers ready for picking PICTURE: Lesley Tilson

In just a few short weeks, the landscape has been transformed: from the August fields of sunflowers ripe for the picking, we have seen the dust of the combine harvesters blowing across the land and subtle changes in the light deeper in the surrounding woods.

OUT OF THE SHADOWS: autumn brings a change of light PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

In the grounds of Windsor’s Great Park the autumn rutting season may have had an extra resonance for visitors this year following the death of the Queen.

POLLEN COUNT: deer at Windsor PICTURE: Nick Bell

After so many thousands swamped the town to pay their final respects, many returning ramblers might be only too keenly aware of the monarch’s absence from her beloved castle, with the current herd all descendants of 40 hinds and two stags introduced in 1979 by the Duke of Edinburgh.

FINAL FLOURISH: ferns capture the sunlight before dying back PICTURE: Sue Craigs Erwin

And from the historic Ridgeway to the depths of Burnham Beeches, a myriad other changes are taking place in this ancient and fascinating landscape, most noticeably the sudden golden glow as nature puts on its most spectacular fireworks display of the year.

SNAZZY DRESSER: the colourful jay PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

The autumnal leaf fall is a clever form of self-protection, allowing deciduous trees to drop thin leaves that would otherwise rupture during the winter, making them useless for photosynthesis, giving the tree a fresh start in the spring while the nutrients from the decaying leaves are recycled to help grow the next generation.

RECYCLING PLANT: fallen leaves and fungi in Hodgemoor Wood PICTURE: Andrew Knight

Amid all the leaf mulch, autumn is also one of the best times to head out foraging, with woods and hedgerows filled with a feast of delights from hazelnuts and rosehips to blackberries, sweet chestnuts and crab apples.

FORMIDABLE: the woods are home to a huge variety of fungi PICTURE: Gel Murphy

The woods play host to a formidable array of mosses, lichens and fungi too, but not all of the intriguing range of shapes and colours to be found among the soaking foliage are safe to eat, as their spine-tingling names might suggest.

FRIEND OR FOE?: many fungi are poisonous PICTURE: Gel Murphy

If you can’t tell a tasty morsel from a destroying angel, funeral bell or death cap, it’s perhaps best to give those colourful mushrooms and toadstools a wide berth.

ANCIENT TABOOS: not all mushrooms are magical PICTURE: Gel Murphy

Widely regarded as magical and equally frequently mistrusted, toadstools and mushrooms are associated with ancient taboos, dung, death and decomposition.

SUPPORT NETWORK: many species rely on fungi PICTURE: Gel Murphy

But as the Woodland Trust explains, trees and many other species rely on fungi and we’re only just starting to fully understand how close this relationship is: great woodland networks that link and support life.

PLUSH PLUMAGE: a little egret PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

As Gillian Burke explained in a previous Autumnwatch series: “90 per cent of our plants are utterly reliant on fungi for survival. By breaking down dead wood, cleaning the soil and recycling nutrients by the most intimate relationship with living plants, fungi are vital to life on Earth.”

VITAL RELATIONSHIP: fungi play a vital role PICTURE: Gel Murphy

At this time of year, those forest floors and woodland glades are full of colourful and intriguing characters, from puffballs and stinkhorns to earthstars and jelly fungi – and while many of them could be poisonous for us to touch and eat, it’s fascinating just how important they may be for our survival.

As always, we’d like to give a very big thank you to all the keen local photographers who have allowed us to use their work.

If you have a picture or two you would like us to feature, drop us a line by email to editor@thebeyonder.co.uk, join us in our Facebook group or contact us on Twitter @TheBeyonderUK.