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I have recently joined the Plantlife team on the Glaswelltiroedd Gwydn (Resilient Grasslands) Project, at a time when grassland fungi are at their peak.

Chris and I have farmed our small slice of westfacing Cambrian mountain for the last 22 years. In that time, we have seen the variety and diversity of plant life quietly improve, and this has extended to the amazing fungi in our grassland.

Our land is a mosaic of rock, bog, wet and dry grassland, with a little bit of improved pasture so we can ensure we produce our Welsh Black cattle purely on grass (with no bought in feed) – minimising our environmental impact. Maintaining a speciesrich grassland has benefits for soil health and overall environmental resilience above and below ground, which expands into the wider environment encouraging insects and birds and even safeguarding water quality.  

Cattle on grassland

What are waxcaps?

Fungi are fickle in their appearance and may not throw up fruiting bodies every year, or in the same place, but generally in autumn, the fungi that are particularly spectacular are the family of waxcaps. They are a colourful and magnificent family of 60 or so grassland fungi.  

On our farm, we’d already counted 21 species of waxcap, but this year that was surpassed by the first appearance of species number 22, the Yellow Foot Waxcap Cuphophyllus flavipes. It has a domed grey cap and pale gills that run down the stem, which is white with distinct yellow colouration to the base. 

Blackening Waxcaps, Hygrocybe conica

The fungi I found

This summer was unusual, with August and September being almost constantly wet, bringing out a large number of Blackening Waxcaps, Hygrocybe conica, early in the season (there is a second flush now). This was followed swiftly by solitary Citrines, H.citrinovirens, which appeared in some unlikely places (including the edge of an ‘improved’ field).  

A particularly pleasing waxcap to appear recently was the aptly named and rather large Splendid Waxcap, Hygrocybe splendidissima. The large, bright red cap quickly expands, spreading as it matures and is similar to other red ones but generally larger. All types of red waxcap are indicators of particularly good quality waxcap habitat.

And we can’t forget the small orange ones that are devilish to identify! We are expecting more species to appear as the autumn progresses.  

Does fungi change farming? 

Having at least some species-rich grassland on a farm is important to help restore balance within the system. In simple terms, providing refuge for beneficial insects and a food source for birds, which then prey on pests, strengthens the ecosystem. Plus, just like us, grazing livestock will appreciate a varied diet and as with us, it helps to improve gut health. The fungi pose no risk to livestock and they tend not to eat them. 

The financial impact of maintaining some species-diverse and fungi-friendly grassland on a farm needn’t be an issue. Steeper slopes and poorer areas of farmland are not economic to maintain as highly productive swards, so there can be a net gain by returning these areas into species-rich grasslands, which provide resilient grazing areas at difficult times of the year. 

Splendid Waxcap, Hygrocybe splendidissima

How do you ID fungi?

One of the challenges with fungi identification is that they can change shape and colour as they expand.

But, if you’ve spotted some waxcaps, here are some handy things to look out for:

  • Cap shape and colour
  • Gill colour and the way they attach to the stem
  • Characteristics of the stem
  • Texture (slimy, dry or fibrous)
  • And for some, the smell!

Britain is home to some of the most important waxcap grasslands in the world – but many species are becoming rare and declining. We need your help identifying and protecting them through the #WaxcapWatch.

What can fungi tell us?

Fungi are particularly sensitive to soil damage due to their predominantly underground life cycle, so it is the undisturbed grassland with no artificial inputs that they thrive in. This may be grassland with a good diversity of wildflower and grass species, but it’s important to note that many outstanding waxcap grasslands are botanically quite nondescript.  

What links waxcap grasslands with flower-rich ones is that they have declined dramatically across the UK through changes in agricultural practices and urban development.  These grasslands are multifunctional and could have an important place in mitigating climate change through carbon sequestration, resilience against drought and flood, improving water quality and the wellbeing of both environment and people. 

If you want to improve fungal communities on your farm, here are some simple actions:

  • Short grazed or cut swards encourage the fungi to fruit 
  • No soil disturbance, in particular ploughing, as it breaks the underground network 
  • No artificial fertilisers, excess nutrients in the soil supress the function of the fungi 
  • No sprays, as weedkillers (even the targeted ones), damage the fungi as well as the weeds 
  • Application of lime may in moderation form part of management; some species thrive in calcareous soils, but dramatic changes in pH are likely to be damaging 

Images: Cows in field Photographed by: Lydia Nicholls

And if you’d like to learn a bit more…

How to find and identify waxcap fungi

How to find and identify waxcap fungi

Every autumn one of the UK’s most colourful natural displays takes place: jewel-coloured waxcaps emerge through the grass across our countryside, cities and even some of our gardens. Let’s find them!

Video: How to use the Waxcap Watch app

Video: How to use the Waxcap Watch app

Watch Sarah Shuttleworth record her first waxcap find on the Waxcap Watch app.

The Glaswelltiroedd Gwydn Project
A red fungi growing in grass

The Glaswelltiroedd Gwydn Project

Grasslands in Wales are facing increasing threats – from development, pollution and damaging practices – and Plantlife is working to create positive change.