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Nature Notes from Markstakes Common 

26 March 2023 

Today’s visit started in the last 15 minutes of a long spell of heavy rain; the woodland streams were seeping water like an upturned bucket on a linoleum kitchen floor. The area cleared by Friends of Markstakes Common has taken on the appearance of a mire’ the willow saplings clearly well suited to this environment.

Just south of the gate, there’s a fallen branch covered in split gill. Densely packed in shelves, they are daily nondescript from above, but below there are those amazing gills to admire, wonderfully drawn like something that might appear in a pre-Raphaelite stained glass window.

Taking the western path south through the Common, there’s a long-ago fallen oak stem, not a very big one, and an obstacle to avoid tripping over most of the year. Today it is covered in Mica Cap: some old and falling apart, others freshly emerging from the decaying bark. I took one home to create a spore print and it duly melted away into a wet, inky black mass.

I like to keep an eye on a couple of our’ notable Hornbeams so I cross over to the western boundary. The oldest Hornbeam and our only ‘veteran’ had a few porcelain fungi on it several weeks ago. This ancient tree looks brutally gnarled, with many broken limbs rotting on the woodland floor. I note how many stronger competitors are growing up around it, some exploiting spaces created by a large fallen stem. It is in this decaying stem that I see slime mould. There are patches of this around the Common, always on pieces of wood so decayed it is hard to believe there is anything left to give. 

My attention is on the trees, notable and ‘possible notables’ (PosNots, as I call them), but I clock the primrose by the flowing boundary stream that wraps from ‘Deep Pond’ and I tread carefully around carpets of bluebells, which have yet to produce a stem or flowers. Gorse is in flower, and catkins gradually flaking away. 

There’s a good deal of Hairy Curtain Crust (Stereum hirsutum) about on an immature, decayed oak stem on the boundary mound, west of Shallow Pond; then again south of ‘The Mire’ on fallen stems, branches and twigs and on what I call the ‘Rocking Horse Head’ a decaying branch of fallen notable Beech No.7 (the rotten trunk of which played host to bracket fungus when noted in 2010 and still has a small colony of ‘Artist’s Bracket’ (Gandoerma applantum). 

Jelly Ear is out in abundance too, on a long decayed Hornbeam branch also between Shallow Pond and the western boundary, but also on a branch used in den building. Brownish in colour, rubbery, gelatinous texture growing on dead and decaying wood in this case most likely on beech (or possibly willow). How I identify one long, rotted branch from another is currently beyond my skills, though indeed, these old branches used for making dens are from different trees. The local trees are Beech, Hornbeam and Oak, with noticeable swathes of Silver Birch, and willow elsewhere. 

Slime mould is not a fungus (nor is it a plant or animal). On first appearance, I think of them as a branch of polypores; they appear in similar spots, but of course they’re not using graving to release spores from pores. The release as such comes as the entire slime mould body transmogrifies from a white, gluttonous mass with a thin skin into a dried out, firm dry nodule, which eventually crumbles away (some of the decayed tree stem with it) into dust. I first spotted a couple (possibly the same mass in two lumps) on a long decayed broken stem of Silver Birch in ‘The Mire’ to the south of the Common. In the past week, this has changed from a white, glutinous mass the size of my fist to a brown nodule that is softening and will soon crumble to dust. I found another on a long-fallen, well-decayed Hornbeam branch under the Veteran Hornbeam (No. 5).  

The sound of spring, birds and bees, is somewhat diminished by the slow rumble, then roar, of jets departing and arriving at Gatwick airport (20 miles to the northwest; Chailey, like Lewes, is on a direct flight path from Seaford, one of the busiest airspaces on the planet). 

The Scarlet elfcup has been consumed by the locals—I’m thinking slugs and birds. Do squirrels or rabbits nibble on them? The only whole Scarlet elfcup left is tucked well amongst the branches. Humans do a neater job of foraging. I don’t forage on ‘my patch,” as it were. As an area that ought to be designated an area of Scientific Interest we ought not to forage (IMHO)

Black witch’s butter, or jelly fungus, has appeared on long-fallen Hornbeam here too. Black, gelatinous, smooth, and shiny. I think of it more as “Crow’s Snot” if we need a more suitable PC wording. Spores are produced on tiny bumps that are scattered across this fruiting body. 

I said hi to the notable Beech with companion oak (no. 31) and a nearby long-dead and fallen Hornbeam (though another fallen Hornbeam has life in it yet). 

I also make note of a companion ‘winner takes all’ (as I classify them): Hornbeam—one long, dead. I have a growing collection of ‘companions,” which I am sure demonstrate that there is nothing symbiotic going on here, not between different species nor between the same species—one or the other eventually trumps the others. All of these are conflated by holly or yew, or trees falling across their paths. 

I also make note of PosNots, which are possible notable trees that may have been missed in the 2010/2013 surveys. This is an oak with honeysuckle growing from one fat stem, as well as ferns and lots of lichen and moss, with other ‘ancient’ characteristics of rotten branches and fallen decaying branches. It is by the path running north and south towards the southeast corner.

Returning from this sortie I inspect the ‘Oyster’ log and half-living stump. It has a fungus or slime mould all over the bark. There are no remaining signs that Oyster mushrooms were ever here. 

Holly is shedding copious leaves; I guess this is because the canopy will imminently close into semi-darkness and the over-winter advantage Holly has is gone.

I circle what I have called the ‘Arthur Rackham’ Hornbeam. I imagine it suffered damage in the storm of October 1987 and has been growing back ever since. I find it wonderfully photogenic and atmospheric. Once the canopy closes in it is hidden in the gloom – another indication that it may struggle to survive against younger competing trees.

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