Roy Watling: We must not let our fungi fall between two toadstools

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These humble organisms are often overlooked but, says Roy Watling, their role is more important than ever

It’s an uphill struggle to persuade naturalists to incorporate fungi into mainstream conservation. Although fungi are so important to the health and development of the world’s ecosystems, the role they play seems to go unnoticed. For a long time many colleagues in other disciplines of natural history paid little attention to fungi, but the tide is turning.

Certainly, fungi have had a bad press – until, that is, primary school children, students, the public and even many academics with whom I have interacted learn the role of fungi in their lives.

What if we didn’t have our rainforests, woods and grasslands, from prairies to hill pastures? What if we didn’t have bread and cakes, cheeses, processed meats, sauces and alcoholic beverages? Life would be very dull, and everyday tasks unbearable.

How many readers, or their friends and relatives, have been treated with penicillin or similar antibiotics, or immunosuppressant drugs? Hands up all those who are over 60 and are not taking statins for cholesterol control?

All these pharmaceuticals have been possible through the study of the role that fungi play in our vegetation. Indeed, they have made many industries very rich.

However, if one doesn’t conserve our heritage of fungi, there is little hope of saving the dynamics of the jungles, rainforests, grasslands and moorlands, manipulating foodstuffs to feed the world’s poorest or finding new treatments. We do not yet know half of all the fungi which exist. Estimated worldwide to number one million plus, and with more than 12,500 known from Scotland, even a small plot of land in the Borders monitored since my retirement has produced 1235 different species of fungi based on 16,266 records.

These are big numbers but here are more – the largest fungus, much of it hidden from view, is the size of two soccer pitches and weighs in at 100 tonnes, and the heaviest mushroom is nearly 100lbs. Or how about the largest puffball measuring more than eight feet and weighing over 48lbs? Just think of all the spores such fungi can produce, adding them to the air.

Those who study fungi also need conserving as mycologists who can identify fungi are hard to come by in the western world and are not being trained in the UK. Those who are retiring are not being replaced within our society.

Thank heavens for a band of interested amateurs in the community but, regardless of their enthusiasm, at some stage they need expert guidance.

Perhaps, for those in charge, it’s a case of out of sight out of mind for it is true that many fungi are tiny and are seen only with the help of a microscope, even those that produce colourful and delicious tasting fruiting bodies in the autumn are hidden in the soil or debris for most of the year.

When hidden they are still active, rotting plant and animal debris and recycling simpler nutrients, making them available to other organisms.

Fungi are the world’s original bio-cyclers. Indeed, fungi are the major partners in many relationships, for insects can’t digest the complex materials which give the stability to plants and call on the assistance of fungi for the first stages of decay.

Most of our land plants have benign fungi in or on their roots which help by capturing nutrients.

The release of nutrients to other organisms by fungi is also illustrated by a peculiar group living in the rumen stomachs of herbivores – these process the raw material eaten by the animals and make simpler compounds that can be absorbed by the animal’s gut.

So fungi are even involved in meat production, just as they help the growth of wheat, barley, oats, millet, maize and rice, thus influencing the major cultures of the world. Fungi are all pervading, even in the most unlikely places, such as Antarctica.

It is true that some fungi are damaging to plants and animals. Some are parasitic, causing widespread damage. Ringworm targets domesticated animals and humans, and we have recently seen the alarming appearance of two fungi in gardens and forests, which are killing shrubs and trees.

But even though fungi are capable of changing the Earth’s atmosphere, on balance the “baddies” are far outnumbered by “friendly” fungi.

Scottish tourism is dependent on our beautiful mountains with their slopes clothed in heather, our ancient Caledonian pinewoods, and fairytale-like birch copses, in addition to our hill pastures, moorland and meadows. Estate gardens which encapsulate Scotland’s historic legacy do not escape the importance of fungi.

So protection of these habitats in Scotland as well as in the rest of the world against ill-considered development is essential.

Perhaps the Capital, itself so dependent on fungi, should take some pages out of the fungi’s record as it seems to have held them in good stead for millions of years, and they still make the world tick.

* Professor Roy Watling MBE is the former head of fungal science at the Royal Botanic Garden, and a world-leading fungi expert.

Natural skill

Professor Roy Watling MBE has been honoured for his outstanding contribution to conservation by being shortlisted for one of the RSPB’s inaugural Nature of Scotland Awards.

He is the expert who helped save the life of the author of the acclaimed novel The Horse Whisperer by identifying the toxic mushroom that left him seriously ill.

Nicholas Evans, 59, left, and his brother-in-law, Sir Alistair Gordon-Cumming, 55, almost died after eating the deadly webcaps, which they had mistaken for harmless chanterelles.

The Nature of Scotland awards celebrate excellence and innovation in Scottish conservation.