Fungi are everywhere in the natural environment, even though most of the time they’re invisible to us. They are essential in all natural and semi-natural habitats as they’re the main decomposers of plant material, recycling nutrients back into the soil so that they are available to fuel further life.

Nearly all of our native plants rely on relationships with fungi to ensure that they get the right nutrients to thrive. Most of the fungi around us are locked into the soil in the form of fine threads of mycelium, much of which has relationships with higher plants.

Fungi mainly come to our attention in the autumn when they produce their fruiting bodies, usually as toadstools or brackets. If you’d like to go out and explore them in the coming months, there are fine examples at some of Cumbria Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves.

Merlewood Bank on Brown Robin Nature Reserve near Grange-over-Sands is renowned for its grassland fungi assemblage, including at least 10 species of waxcaps. Beautifully coloured and reasonably easy to identify, waxcaps have been dubbed the orchids of the fungi world, with good assemblages being of national or international importance. Look out for the rare pink or ballerina waxcap, the blushing waxcap, the green parrot waxcap or the striking scarlet waxcap. Other fungi found in these grasslands are the coral fungi and the earth tongues. Brown Robin also hosts the rare and very beautiful violet coral fungus. Other great waxcap nature reserves include Barkbooth Lot near Crosthwaite, South Walney near Barrow and Eycott Hill near Berrier.

Woodlands are always great places to see fungi, especially in the autumn when many species put up their fruiting bodies. Dorothy Farrer’s Spring Wood (now part of Staveley Woodlands) has a great list of species. Common fungi with wonderful names like stink horn, beechwood sickener, razor strop fungus, amethyst deceiver and fly agaric can all be found here. Other great woodland nature reserves for fungi are Wreay Woods near Carlisle and Smardale near Kirkby Stephen.

Fungi often get reported when someone spots something out of the ordinary. Fairy rings are an amazing sight and some years can be very striking. Formed as the fungus grows out from a central point, the fruiting bodies form rings or arcs. Many species develop these growth patterns and can be seen in certain years at the dune grasslands of South Walney Nature Reserve or the limestone soils at Whitbarrow (Hervey Memorial Reserve).

Some people start identifying fungi with a view to finding edible species. Please be absolutely sure before you pick any wild mushrooms – or why not just enjoy these fascinating organisms in the wild for their own variety and beauty?