12 Feb 2016

Dancing to the Rhythm of Fungi

Bruce Langridge

The sight of a fruiting ballerina waxcap Hygrocybe calyptriformis was once the cause of great celebration.

In the 1990s and 2000s, this uniquely pink variety of waxcap was considered a great rarity on grasslands across the UK and grant money was being given to people to both look for it and conserve it.

I know this because I sourced grant money from the Countryside Council for Wales when it was found for the first time on our Waun Las National Nature Reserve in 2005. This paid for an intensive re-survey of our waxcap-rich fields by Debbie Evans, some on-site interpretation and waxcap identification training for budding new mycologists. It also helped me to understand and appreciate the importance of waxcap fungi on unfertilised grassland, the management needed to conserve it and the need to communicate this to others. In Wales, public interest and knowledge of waxcaps has clearly increased over the past 20 years, a consequence of a lot of advocacy by the likes of Maurice Rotheroe, Gareth Griffiths, Ray Woods, Penny David, Shelley Evans, David Harries, Nigel Stringer and countless other individuals, the National Trust, wildlife trusts, Plantlife, Treborth Botanic Garden, Pembrokeshire Fungus Recording Network, and ourselves at the National Botanic Garden of Wales.

I’ve seen for myself how much interest has been generated in waxcap fungi. Having plucked up the courage to run fungi forays at the Botanic Garden a few years ago, over 60 people turned up for one of my pre-advertised waxcap walks, and over the past three years David Mitchel has bravely taken on crowds of 40-50 to look at waxcaps on UK Fungus Day at the Botanic Garden.

So why is the discovery of a new ballerina not such a cause of celebration today?

The rush to conserve this mushroom has had unexpected consequences. So many people were encouraged to look for it that there are now a few thousand records across the UK, with Wales and the west of England and Scotland having the most dots on the distribution map. Ballerina waxcaps, now officially referred to as pink waxcaps (I prefer the more romantic and evocative ballerina) are no longer on red data lists and have been superceded, from a conservation assessment point of view, by other rarer waxcap species.

But, that’s not the end of the story. A look at the distribution map on the National Biodiversity Network site shows that a large slice of western and northern Wales, from Fishguard up to Llandudno, has very few records of ballerinas. Maybe people haven’t been recording so much there but this indicates that ballerinas are still relatively rare.

On Waun Las NNR this autumn, with the considerable help of the Garden’s Volunteer Wildlife Recording Group, ballerinas have been found fruiting in six different places, three more than we knew about before. Not just on our sheep grazed pastures but now they are appearing on our traditionally managed hay meadows and on our Wild Garden, one of the grassy slopes leading down from the Great Glasshouse which have been planted with plants from the Steppes and Prairie regions of the world. Ballerinas have been fruiting for a longer period of autumn too, from late August through to early December, as the shadows in the photograph illustrate.

So what’s going on?

Could it be that the warm, wet autumn produced the ideal weather conditions for waxcap fruiting. Possibly, but only fourteen of all of our twenty two known waxcap species here were observed to be fruiting this autumn.

Could it be our organic approach to farming is showing positive results? We’ve been managing our lands organically for over 15 years now so perhaps our grasslands are gradually recovering from fertiliser applied before the Botanic Garden was established in the late 1990s. This autumn we also found some of the more common, pioneering waxcap species, such as Hygrocybe conica, H.virginia, H.pratensis, H.chlorophana and H.psittacina fruiting for the first time on fields that we know were definitely fertilised in the 1970s. This might be the key reason.

But let’s not rule out human observation. Fungi are still hugely under-recorded in Wales compared to wildflowers, and the example of  the growth of ballerina records is a perfect illustration of how our perception of conservation need can change when we work together to really look at what we have got here in Wales. Ballerinas were one of the main reasons I became hooked on fungi and I suspect that they will continue to be hook for future mycologists.