When Steve Oultram, Course Manager at The Wilmslow Golf Club in Cheshire, met a member who confessed to being fanatical about mushrooms, he had an idea.
Steve, winner of the North of England Golf Environment Award for 2011, had often wondered how many different species of fungi could be found on the course.
Would the member be willing to add to Steve's growing volume of ecological data on the course, by conducting a survey of the fungi that he and his team observe every autumn under Wilmslow's magnificent oak, beech and birch trees, and alongside its 400-year-old hedgerows?
Retired journalist, Roger Langley, was happy to oblige. He had been collecting and eating the best of the edible species found on the course for nearly thirty years, but had never been asked to conduct a formal survey. He told Steve he expected to find around forty to fifty different species on the 6635-yard par 72 course. Imagine his surprise when he found over eighty.
The magnificent beech and oak trees that adorn the Wilmslow golf course, together with its ancient hedgerows and hundreds of silver birch, provide an ideal habitat for many species of British fungi.
Enhance that habitat with our wettest and mildest autumn for more than thirty years, and you have all the makings of a bumper season for mushrooms, toadstools, puff balls and brackets.
I have collected, studied and eaten Wilmslow's fungi since I joined the club in the eighties and the 'harvest' of 2011 was, comfortably, the biggest and best I can remember.
Between the end of April and the first week of December, I recorded more than eighty different species, which is roughly a fifth of the number of fungi illustrated and described in popular mushroom guides and handbooks.
Ideal conditions in late summer and autumn were prolonged by an exceptionally mild start to the winter, with most areas of the country escaping the severe frosts that bring an abrupt end to the fungi season.
Species like the poisonous Fly Agaric, the distinctive red-and-white capped mushroom always associated with silver birch, were still going strong two weeks before Christmas. Traditionally, they disappear from our course by the end of October or early November.
Just about the last edible mushroom of the fungi season is the delicious Wood Blewit, which stubbornly resists severe frosts and can still be found under a protective carpet of leaf litter in late November and early December. To my amazement, as recently as 12th January I found an undamaged cluster of this lovely mushroom, whose underside colours are blue-to-lilac and later brown, just over the bridge on the seventeenth.
The Wood Blewit is a popular ingredient in the steak and mushroom pies that can often be found on the winter menus of village pubs in the Midlands. My own little harvest earlier this month made a very tasty accompaniment for sirloin steak later in the day.
The most notable feature of the 2011 season, however, was the discovery of two highly-prized species that I, for one, had never seen before on the course, although I would be very surprised if they have never, ever grown in some remote, undisturbed corner of our terrain.
The first of these was a fine specimen of Sulphur Polypore, commonly known as Chicken of the Woods, which was found in October by my fellow fungi enthusiast, Brian Tait, on a tree stump to the right of the second fairway at its junction with the first fairway.
This fungi takes the form of a large bracket, 10-40 cms across, which is often fan-shaped or semi-circular and produces thick layers of lemon-yellow or yellow-orange flesh, similar in texture to chicken. Very popular in Germany, and much sought-after in North America, it is excellent in soups, casseroles and pickles, and can also be grilled or used as cutlets.
Brian also spotted the season's first edible species, the St.George's Mushroom, just in front of the thirteenth tee, and later he found another specimen near the first tee. This mushroom, which is white and has a characteristic floury smell, always appears at Wilmslow about a week after St.George's Day on 23rd April.
My personal highlight of the year was the discovery, for the first time, of a splendid cluster of Chanterelle in the semi-rough to the right of the second fairway. The Chanterelle is a delicious companion for scrambled eggs or an omelette, and is coveted by chefs the world over.
I have often found a species known as False Chanterelle on the course, and although one of my reference books describes it as edible, it says it has been known to cause hallucinations in some cases! Another reference book is unequivocal; it's poisonous and that's that!
Several species identified in the survey are known to be poisonous, but the majority are categorised in the text books as inedible, meaning that they are about as appetising as a mouthful of grass clippings.
About ten of the species listed are edible, and half of those are very tasty indeed. I am happy to report that only once in the past twenty years have I found a 'deadly poisonous' mushroom at Wilmslow - a Death Cap (Amanita phalloides) in the copse on the left bank of the fourteenth.
The 'deadly poisonous' designation means precisely that; if you are foolish enough to confuse it with an edible species, you should call on your undertaker after receiving treatment at your A&E Department!
My survey has not been systematic or scientific, and the species listed below can be easily recognised in the field without the need for a microscope. I am confident that dozens more fungi could be identified if a serious mycologist, armed with a microscope, ventured into the dense woodland that runs through the centre of the course, and diligently studied all the LBTs that he or she would find amongst rotting wood and vegetation. LBTs, by the way, are Little Brown Things that fungi enthusiasts, like me, find it impossible to identify without a microscope.
Most of the fungi listed below were found on the course last year, and all have appeared on the course at least once in the past two years. Many fungi have popular or common names and, whenever possible, I have used these in preference to their scientific names, which are generally rather boring and certainly less easy to pronounce.
Some species, such as Fly Agaric, The Blusher and Common Yellow Russula, appear every year in large numbers throughout the course. Many others are much more restricted in their habitat and distribution, and may not produce fruiting bodies in poor seasons, such as dry summers and autumns.
Finally, a brief answer to a question frequently raised when the topic of fungi comes up. There is no difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, but it has become common practice to restrict the term mushroom to certain edible species. The classification of all fungi is still a matter of considerable debate, even amongst experts.
Last word: Fungi play an essential role in maintaining a well-balanced natural environment. Without fungi, we would have no beer, no wine and no cheese!
Results of the survey
The survey was conducted by Roger Langley, with valuable contributions from Brian Tait. The eighty species of fungi positively identified during 2011 are listed broadly in their scientific groups, as follows:
Agaricus: Yellow Stainer, Horse Mushroom, Wood Mushroom, Field Mushroom.
Amanitas: The Blusher, Grisette, Fly Agaric, Tawny Grisette.
Boletus: Cep or Penny Bun, Bay Boletus, boletus aereus, Red-cracked boletus, Brown Birch Bolete, boletus porosporus, Yellow-cracking Bolete, Orange Birch Bolete, boletus erythropus, Slippery Jack, Larch Bolete.
Clitocybe: clitocybe houghtonii, Clouded Agaric, Tawny Funnel Cap.
Collybia: Spotted Tough-shank, Clustered Tough-shank, Spindle Shank, Butter Cap, Velvet Shank, Wood Woolly-foot
Coprinus: Shaggy Ink Cap/ Lawyer's Wig, Common Ink Cap, Glistening Ink Cap, Rufous Milk Cap, coprinus niveus
Cortinarius: Brown Roll-rim, paxillus atrotomentosus.
Hygrocybe: Parrot Wax Cap, Scarlet Hood, hygrocybe konradii, hygrocybe ceracea, Meadow Wax Cap, Crimson Wax Cap, Conical Wax Cap, mycena galopus, mycena inclinata.
Lactarius: Oak Milk Cap, Ugly Milk Cap, Peppery Milk Cap, lactarius pterosporus;
Russula: Blackish-purple Russula, Milk-white Russula, Common Yellow Russula, Fragile Russula, Yellow Swamp Russula, Beechwood Sickener.
Puff balls and brackets: King Alfred's Cakes, lycoperdon perlatum, lycoperdon pyriforme, calvatia utriformis, scleroderma verrucosum; Chicken of the Woods, Giant Polypore, Birch Polypore.
Miscellaneous: Chanterelle, False Chanterelle, Shaggy Pholiota, Honey Fungus/Boot-lace Fungus, The Deceiver, Brick Caps, St.George's Mushroom, Parasol Mushroom, Shaggy Parasol, leucocoprinus brebissonii, pluteus cervinus, The Miller, Sulphur Tuft, Jew's Ear, Candle-snuff Fungus, Stinkhorn, Poison Pie, Wood Blewit.
The Wilmslow Golf Club has hosted former European PGA tournaments, including the Martini International and the Greater Manchester Open