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Mycological Conservation

For most people, the terms wildlife or biodiversity are immediately associated with flora and fauna. Unfortunately, all too often, fungi get overlooked, and it is for this reason that fungi can rightly be considered 'the forgotten kingdom'. Forgotten they may be, but insignificant they certainly are not, outnumbering all the plants and vertebrates put together. Present in all major ecosystems, it is estimated that there may be over 1.5 million species of fungi worldwide, and that up to 90% of fungal species are as yet undiscovered.

At the European scale, it is thought that there are some 75,000 species of fungi, of which up to 20,000 species are macro-fungi. However, latest research suggests that about 2000-3000 species of fungi in Europe are now declining and at risk. This is a serious problem, for fungi have a crucial part to play in the functioning of most of the world's ecosystems. Not only are wild mushrooms a source of food for many vertebrates and invertebrates, they also fulfil several less obvious but much more important roles. It is now known that numerous fungi form essential mycorrhizal associations with plant roots, and that many of the plant species on which mankind relies could not survive without their fungal partners. These fungi aid the uptake of nutrients and water by the plants, promote root development, protect from pathogens and pollutants, and also improve soil structure.

Evidence suggests that the decline of macro-fungi in Europe is multi-faceted, resulting from the loss of old-growth forests with their associated veteran trees and deadwood, as well as the decline and impoverishment of traditional high nature-value grasslands. In addition, pollution, climate change and over-harvesting of wild edible mushrooms are also all likely to be having a negative impact.

Because of their specialisation and important ecological functions, fungi have the potential to be excellent bio-indicator species. Unfortunately, the ecology and distribution of the majority species, remains largely unknown, making fungal research and monitoring a great priority.