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The autumn spectacle of multicoloured waxcaps is an important indicator of ancient grasslands that have been unploughed for decades, and which are rich in carbon and soil biodiversity.  

Unfortunately, many of these irreplaceable grassland fungi sites continue to disappear under tree planting, new houses, intensive farming, transport infrastructure and more. It is certain that many more are also lost unseen, because of a series of interlinked issues that place the conservation of fungi far behind that of other taxa like mammals and birds. 

What issues do grassland fungi face?

The first, and perhaps most important, is the shortage of skilled field surveyors able to identify and record fungi (known as mycologists). Fortunately, there does seem to be an increasing interest in fungi amongst the public. The 1,500 members of Plantlife’s #WaxcapWatch Facebook page is a reflection of this, and is very encouraging.

However, the number of people working professionally as field surveyors remains very low. Most ecological consultancies, who undertake survey work to protect wildlife during development, don’t employ mycologists. 

This lack of expert recorders and recording means that we still have very little data describing the distribution of fungal species across large parts of the country, especially compared to other taxa.

What happens when there is no data?

There is huge pressure on land use today. We need land for farming, for tree planting, for renewable power generation, for housing: the list goes on. Our ability to deliver nature’s recovery depends on us making good decisions when planning these activities. That in turn ensures that nature is protected, and actually restored, in line with government targets and policies. 

However, picture this: plans are afoot to build a large new housing estate on formerly sheep-grazed agricultural land. Ecological surveys are required. However, a search of databases doesn’t reveal any fungal records, because no field mycologists have ever visited the land.

The ecological consultancy visits the site in summer, because that’s when plants, birds and mammals are best surveyed. They don’t employ a mycologist. The plants in the fields aren’t that interesting- and so the proposal gets the go ahead. In fact, the fields are incredibly rich in waxcaps, but nobody knows, and nobody looks. The site is lost without ever being recognised for its biodiversity. 

The impact of development on our hidden fungi

This is a very real problem that Plantlife is currently observing in multiple cases across Wales at present. Fungal surveys are difficult to do, and often considered unreasonably burdensome for developers, even for large projects. As a result, we are losing precious ancient grasslands before we’ve even been able to recognise them for what they are. You can’t compensate for an impact on something you never knew was there. 

It’s also likely to be an increasing problem in the coming years with large infrastructure projects being planned. For example, in Wales there is a huge amount of work scheduled to reinforce our electricity supply grid, with new cabling going in across the country. Julie James MS, the Minister for Climate Change in Wales, has said the presumption will be that new cables will be underground, to reduce the visual impact. Will the impact on fungi be adequately identified and mitigated? At present, that seems unlikely. 

What can we do to help grassland fungi?

All is not lost, and there are many things we can do to address this problem. 

  • We need government, local authority planners, and developers, to recognise that current systems regularly fail to identify sites that are important for fungi, and make sure that the impacts on our internationally important ancient grasslands are better addressed.
  • We need better legal protection for fungi. For example, there are presently only 27 species protected under Section 7 of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, compared to 51 birds and 188 invertebrates.
  • We need more investment in surveying fungi before committing to land use change. That means training and employing more field mycologists, but also making more and better use of new techniques such as eDNA surveys. These surveys can identify fungi present in the soil, and help to reduce our dependence on surveys during the autumn fungal fruiting season.
  • We need more data. We can all help with that, by recording fungi when we see them. Even if you aren’t an expert, you can take part in our Waxcap Watch, which only asks for the colours of grassland fungi you see. This helps to identify sites of potential value. When the value of a site is understood and recorded, it makes it easier to fight to defend that value.

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Fancy a half-term adventure for the whole family, that gets the kids outside and interested in nature? Well, the answer is on your doorstep…fungi hunting.  

Fungi are one of our most fascinating creations, and best of all, they are right under our noses – perfect for children to spot. You don’t even need to go to a nature reserve, the hunt for fungi can begin in your back garden or local greenspace.  

With autumn well and truly here, I have found myself delving into the weird and wonderful world of fungi – very much aided by my children’s interest. The questions about what is this strange looking mushroom, what are these neon blobs, or gelatinous goo on the log – prompted my own interest in jolly-well finding out.

As it turns out, fungi are as diverse and complicated a group as one might expect. And it’s quite astonishing how brilliant children are at spotting them. (I suppose being that much closer to the ground and having 20:20 vision is probably a large amount to do with it!)

Parrot Waxcap

Where to find Fungi?

You can find fungi in so many places, here are just a few:  

  • Among grasses in gardens or green spaces  
  • The forest floor 
  • Under leaf litter or on fallen logs  
  • At the base and on trunks of trees  

What to bring ?

  • A notepad and pencils 
  • Phone or camera  
  • Some snacks for those hungry fungi-hunters  
  • A hand lens is helpful, but not essential  

On our first trip out, we found more than 30 species in just one hour, ranging from the colourful circus like fungi, to the downright weird freak show of stinkhorns and slime moulds. We have been to woods in the Blackdowns, Dead woman’s ditch in the Quantocks and even round the corner at Thurlbear. All of these places gave us a range of fascinating finds, just by stepping off the path and looking around. Even if you don’t know the species, a few quick photos from different angles and a social media post, will soon increase your knowledge.

Some amazing names

I think the children particularly like the sheer surprise element in fungi finding, you really don’t know what could turn up. Plus, the names are a delight – from The Sickener Russula Emetica, Green Elfcup Chlorociboria Aeruginascens, Amethyst Deceiver Laccaria Amethystina, Bearded Dapperling Cystolepiota Seminuda, Snapping Bonnet Mycena Vitilis, Yellow Brain Tremella Mesenterica and Turkey Tail Trametes Versicolor. Some of them ooze blood like droplets, turn bright blue when sliced, smell like honey or puff magic smokey spores when prodded! There are literally so many reasons for not only kids but the kids in us to be fascinated by this world of mycelial magic in the woods.

Family exploring in a woodland

Here are some top tips for those first-time fungi hunters:  

  • You don’t need to go to a nature reserve, you can often find fungi in your garden or local green space
  • Despite some being poisonous to eat, looking or even touching fungi is not harmful  
  • It’s fine to get close, take photos and examine their incredible beauty – without any worry or danger  
  • It’s always advisable to wash your hands before eating when you’re out exploring nature 

This Autumn, we’re also asking for your help to find Britain’s most colourful and important fungi – waxcaps. Click here to take part and find out more about our #WaxcapWatch– and you might even be able to help us find some important species-rich grassland in the process.  

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

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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!

A pink mushroom

How to identify waxcaps

Waxcaps are types of mushrooms known for their shiny-looking caps. Together with other types of fascinatingly named fungi called pinkgills, earthtongues, club and coral fungi – they form a group called “grassland fungi”.

Waxcaps and grassland fungi come in a rainbow of different colours including vibrant violets, yellows, greens and pinks.

They also come in weird and wonderful shapes, which can help you to identify the species you’re looking at.

Where can I find waxcaps in the UK?

Chris Jones is the Warden at the Kenfig National Nature Reserve, one of our Dynamic Dunescapes sites, and has worked as a practical conservationist for over 25 years.

Kenfig is one of the largest sand dune systems in Wales and provides a unique habitat for a variety of rare and specialised species, including over 20 species of Waxcap fungi.

Violet coloured fungus with branches looking like coral on a green grassy area.

Chris’ tips on where to find waxcaps near you:

‘Waxcap fungi are commonly found in grasslands and meadows, and they are known for their ecological importance. They are often found in areas with short, grazed vegetation, but they can also occur in disturbed habitats, such as lawns and roadside verges.

Waxcaps are mostly found in the late summer and autumn, typically from September to November, depending on the local weather – but you can find them all year round.

Try looking for waxcaps on…

  • Meadows and pastures
  • Coastal grasslands on cliffs and sand dunes
  • Heath and uplands, such as hills and mountains
  • Urban grasslands including lawns, parks, church yards and stately home grounds
  • Roadside verges

The meadows where waxcaps are found are known as ‘waxcap grasslands’. These grasslands need specific conditions for waxcaps to thrive and are becoming rare.

On waxcap grasslands, waxcap fungi form partnerships with plants, where they exchange nutrients with the roots of host plants, benefiting both the fungi and the plants. This only happens in habitats with a high level of biodiversity, which the aims to identify.

Waxcap grasslands need:

  • Well-drained soil
  • To have not been disturbed by farming equipment for a long period of time
  • To have not been fertilised, so are low in soil nutrients
  • Short grass with plenty of moss

Waxcap fungi are fascinating not only for their vibrant colours but also for their significance as indicators of healthy grasslands. Their conservation is important for maintaining biodiversity and preserving these unique and beautiful fungi for future generations to enjoy.

Many waxcap species are considered rare or threatened, primarily due to habitat loss and changes in land management practices such as tree planting and intensive agriculture. If you find any, please record them on the Waxcap Watch app.

I LOVE Waxcaps, they are AMAZING! It is ridiculously hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to choose it would be… all of them.’

Discover Waxcap Species

Field Pansy

Field Pansy

Viola arvensis

Bramble

Bramble

Rubus fruticosus

White Campion

White Campion

Silene latifolia

A Date Waxcap has been found by the warden

Chris Jones is the warden at Kenfig NNR. He is also a passionate fungus recorder. In 2022 he made an important discovery…  A Date Waxcap, Hygrocybe spadicea! “A gorgeous shade of brown with yellow gills that I have only seen once in 20 years of looking for waxcaps, it was indeed a lucky day!” 

Chris describes how the describes how the discovery came about: 

“Kenfig National Nature Reserve is a magical place for me. It is 1339 acres of sand dune marvels and beauty, some days there is a new species surprise around the corner.” 

“I am fungi obsessed, I loveallthe mycological delights but my favourites by far are the colourful grassland fungi, the waxcaps. About 23 call Kenfig their home.” 

“We found the Date Waxcap on the day the volunteers decided to do a Dune Waxcap Hygrocybe conicoides survey on the frontal dunes – this waxcap is quite common in sand dunes. It is very variable in colour, from a deep red through oranges and yellow. As we talked and walked, in the corner of my eye, I spotted it! The unmistakable colouration of the Date Waxcap.”

The Importance of Welsh Grasslands 

Being a land of grass, here in Wales we see permanent pastures and rough grazing all around us. Most of these are intensively managed for sheep and cattle. However, less intensively farmed grassland can offer very important habitat for grassland fungi. This includes waxcaps, but also other important groups. One of the most stunning examples must surely be the Violet Coral Clavaria zollingeri

Waxcap Fungi 

Waxcaps are named for their shiny, waxy and often brightly coloured caps. They can look like blobs of red, orange, green or yellow wax in the turf.  Here in Wales, we have some beautiful species such as the Pink or Ballerina Waxcap Porpolomopsis calyptriformis, and Scarlet Waxcap Hygrocybe coccinea. In fact, despite our small size, Wales is home to over half the number of waxcap species found in Britain.

It’s not just our farmed grasslands that are good for fungi, either. Other habitats such as old lawns, churchyards and grass in parks and gardens can all be incredibly important. And of course, sand dune grasslands too, just like Kenfig. They just need to be sensitively managed.

Challenges faced by Grassland Fungi

We know many grassland fungi are declining and threatened. They are under-recorded, so their habitat may be destroyed due to a lack of knowledge. Waxcaps are also very sensitive to changes in their environment. Some cannot tolerate the regular ploughing, re-seeding, and fertilising on intensive farms. Consequently, some species, like Date-coloured Waxcap Hygrocybe spadicea are now very rare. 

We are still learning about these beautiful fungi. We have too few fungi experts (mycologists) in Wales. We also have many unanswered questions about their distribution, ecology and conservation needs.  

However, we do also have some amazing places for wildlife, places that we already know are important for grassland fungi. Kenfig NNR is one of these. Kenfig is an Important Plant Area (IPA), and Plantlife has been involved in its management for many years. Most recently this has been through our Green Links project based in Bridgend. 

Waxcap grasslands are an important part of Plantlife Cymru’s work. We are seeking to understand more about their distribution and management. We would also like to see them better protected from both accidental and deliberate damage.

How to get Involved

Would you like to get involved with waxcap recording? You can download a site survey app that helps us find new, important places for grassland fungi. You don’t need to be able to identify species- just their colours! 

Download a free Survey123 app on your smartphone or tablet: 

Google Play (Android) 

Apple Store (iOS) 

Hit this link on your smart device: https://arcg.is/PLT5X   

Select ‘Open in the Survey123 field app’ and then ‘Continue without signing in’. A message will pop up asking for access to your phone’s camera and storage – please click Yes / Allow 

You are ready to go!