Dalesman October 2011: Cave wildlife and Forest Fungi

Fungi on dead wood recycle nutrients

Fungi on dead wood recycle nutrients

For Dalesman this month, I’ve had the privilege of meeting some very knowledgeable wildlife experts: David Hodgson, who has spent hours lying in the cold, wet dark , studying wildlife in caves, and Brian Walker, a retired forest ranger.

I spent a fascinating morning with Brian, now retired and enjoying spending his time on nature study and conservation. His many years with the Forestry Commission have given him a deep knowledge, and conversation ranged over the lifestyles of fungi, the sustainable production of timber, conservation and climate change.

Fungi are neither plant nor animal, but something else. Unlike plants, they cannot make energy from the sunshine, but must feed like animals. But unlike animals, they cannot move, and they reproduce by spreading spores. The toadstools and mushrooms we see carry the spores, which grow into new individuals.

Sometimes fungi live in partnership with a plant. In these cases, said Brian, “None are destroying or weakening each other, but they’re interdependent.”

Other fungi are involved in decay, but this is a vital part of recycling nutrients back into the soil, so that new plants – and trees – can grow.

Many fungi are poisonous because fungi produce complex substances different to other plants or animals. However, like the rainforest and the coral reef, this makes them a rich hunting ground for new chemicals that can have medicinal uses.

For instance, penicillin came from a type of fungus, and, said Brian, “There’s a fungus that makes people sick if they eat it and drink alcohol. From that, they’ve developed a medicine for alcoholics.”

When working for the Forestry Commission, Brian worked closely with many other groups to promote conservation and biodiversity. He commented that the expertise within the Forestry Commission meant that the forests were managed to the best known practice, for economic and sustainable timber production, for conservation, and to provide access for people to enjoy the forests.

He saw this practice as vital as the climate changes. He stressed that conserving biodiversity means giving space to everything, not just species that we might find attractive. For instance, he commented, “People dislike birds of prey because they eat the birds that come to their bird tables.”

He added, “The idea that there’s a unique British environment that can preserved can’t be done. Dalby used to be a rabbit warren, now it’s a forest. Things will change, and we must allow adaptation. For instance, buzzards are moving south, and the honey buzzard is moving north. We’re into change, it’s inevitable.”

However, he was upbeat, and thought that forests can accept change, and in fact, that change is a vital part of the life of the forest. He commented that as areas are felled to harvest timber, particular species move into these areas. He said, “There’s a bird called the great grey shrank, that comes in winter. It might, with climate change, nest in Britain. It loves the areas we fell, because it sits in the treetops, but forages in the open areas. If we didn’t clear fell areas, there wouldn’t be these parts of the forest for them.”

The progression of natural change means that plants grow in clear felled areas, gradually filling them again. But as new areas are harvested for timber, new clear areas are formed.

It’s all part of maintaining the biodiversity that Brian sees as key to protecting all species.

Read all about it in Dalesman

About Helen Johnson

Freelance writer specialising in Yorkshire's history and heritage.

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