By Fran Southgate
Living Landscapes Advisor
How networks of fungi can help us restore natural landscapes
It’s something of a human tendency to ignore or be scared of the things we can’t see or explain, and to only acknowledge the things that we can name. Unfortunately in wildlife conservation, this often means that key species and species groups, essential to life on earth, are forgotten or overlooked.
The good news is that we appear to be getting wise to this tendency, and we are (occasionally) looking in more detail at the small and hard to identify things which are crucial to supporting life on earth – things like algae and plankton, krill, insects and fungi.
The premise that the blue whale is the biggest living organism on earth was blown out of the water recently by the discovery of a ‘humungous fungus’ which lives in the Blue Mountains of Oregon in the USA. Hidden completely out of sight, this living organism is thought to cover at least 3 square miles, and to be between 2,000 and 8,000 years old!
The little toadstools and mushrooms that we see are only a tiny part of the whole organism. New research into fungi shows that mycorrhizal fungi (fungi associated with plant roots) can form huge networks which help distribute nutrients, water, and ‘communication’ across vast areas of forest and other habitat. Many fungi are also essential to global cycles of birth, death, rotting and recycling of nutrients and soil.
More recently still, fungi have been used for ‘growing’ sustainable packaging, and for helping to filter and break down some of our worst pollution. In ourwork, we use natural landscapes and Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SUDS) to store and filter flood water, removing sediment and pollutants from the water column as well as helping to reduce flooding. Sustainable urban Drainage Systems (SuDS), such as rain gardens, are widely used now to treat polluted water and to remove surface water flooding at the same time as creating wildlife habitat and urban greenspaces. But SuDS can be taken even further by harnessing the power of fungi.
New science is helping us to use fungi as natural ‘Mycofiltration’, to remove harmful contaminants from water and soil. This low-tech, environmentally friendly method can be used in all sorts of circumstances including filtering pollutants mobilised from roads during rainstorm run-off, and breaking down agricultural and industrial waste. Studies have shown how some species of fungi – like oyster mushrooms– can digest pollutants like petrochemicals or bacteria, whilst others can remove heavy metals from the environment. Making fungi an essential part of any natural ecosystem restoration in many places.
We are a long way from understanding the full importance of the natural support systems that fungi provide, but we are starting to see them as an essential part of our landscapes, and to try and manage land and water in ways which don’t harm this amazing underground infrastructure. With a bit more understanding, hopefully fungi can help us to restore more of our natural ecosystems back to health.
One of the best things that you can do is to start getting out there and recording where we find fungi. So if you’re into recording wildlife, then have a look atand start sending us your fungi records as soon as you can.