Internationally rare fungus discovered on restored Norfolk heathland
One of Europe's rarest fungi, the Nail Fungus Poronia punctata, has been discovered on pony dung in the Forestry Commission (FC)'s Thetford Forest in Norfolk. It has not been recorded in the county for nearly 70 years, the last record being in 1944. Where is has come from is baffling, but it is clear that heathland restoration and management in Thetford has successfully created the particular conditions this very rare fungus needs — rough heathland and grassland grazed by 'organic' ponies.
Nail Fungus (J Spencer).
Poronia spores need poor-quality herbage processed by 'organic' ponies and horses. They are ingested and dispersed by the ponies when they feed, reappearing on the dung when it is deposited on the heathland. It competes with other bacteria and fungi within the dung, using antibiotic compounds whose mechanism and value are only beginning to be explored. The biocidal properties of this and other fungi and lichens make them one of the most important aspects of biodiversity to conserve.
How this rare fungus arrived at Hockwold is something of a mystery. It may have persisted as spores in the soils since the area was Breckland heath 80 or more years ago, though this seems unlikely. It may have come with the Dartmoor ponies, though Poronia has not been recorded recently in Devon. Most probably it has arrived with the ponies, but from some other locality. The ponies are grazed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust on this and other conservation sites. It will be worth a search of other places where they have recently been at work.
The discovery surprised and delighted Forestry Commission ecologists making a routine inspection of the restored heathland. Jonathan Spencer, FC Head of Environment and Planning, was with local FC expert Neal Armour-Chelu and Andy Palles-Clark, the site manager with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, when they spotted the rarity.
Jonathan said: "We really were delighted and are very excited by the discovery. Until recently, this fungus was known in the UK only from the New Forest, but it has started to appear in a tiny number of other places where ponies have been used to restore heathland. As well as thrilling conservationists, the fungus is drawing serious attention from the world of medicinal research too. The peculiar way it competes with other bacteria and fungi in the dung using antibiotics is new to science and only just beginning to be explored, so its use and value could be huge. Fungi have so much to offer in this way; they are key parts of our biodiversity that could hold huge potential for services yet to be realised."
"We are delighted that the restoration work we have done and our ongoing management on this heathland have created the special conditions needed for this very rare fungus to thrive. And not just fungi: the heathland sites are also home to Woodlarks and Lapwings, and all as a result of the restoration pony grazing in place. We might have some superstar ponies on our hands that will be in great demand too."
Nail Fungus (J Spencer).
The ponies are owned and managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, who work with FC as partners in their ambitious habitat programme at Thetford. The fungus, named because of its distinctive appearance (like an old-fashioned flat-headed nail), grows only on dry dung from ponies that have fed on heathy grassland that has not been agriculturally improved. The ponies it passes through have to be organic and treated only by benign veterinary products. The site, near Hockwold in Norfolk, has been restored to heathland as part of a major plan to link up and expand existing Breckland heaths. The Breckland is one of the most important areas for biodiversity in England and the Forestry Commission is a major player in its management and conservation.