View From… Our Volunteer & Outreach Officer

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As part of the variety of views we get as contributions to our blog, we like to include a ‘Day-in-the-Life’ style posts from members of our team. To celebrate the last day of #NationalTreeWeek, our Volunteer and Outreach Officer Patrick Watts-Mabbott is sharing his ‘Night-in-the-Life-of’ role as he searched out Exmoor Fox Fire that keeps the woodlands of Exmoor aglow.

Exmoor is an wondrous place, especially as it is Europe’s first Dark Skies reserve. And there is another benefit of Exmoor being so dark – its bioluminescent wildlife.  In the summer we get glow worms, who have an amazing life cycle that needs the dark skies for the flying males to find the flightless, but glowing, females to mate.  More on that another day!

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Top picture shows the wood in daylight; picture below shows the effect of the luminescence in the dark.

For now, I want to share my Autumn wanderings….. in the dark…..with no torch or moon.  Cloudy is best, as even star light can wreck your night vision. If you can see anything, you can still see too much. And you need to know the ground well to do this safely.

After about 10 minutes in complete darkness, searching on my hands and knees in the leaf-litter on the banks of the River Exe, I found it.  A faint glow, a yellowy green, peering out of the darkness like eyes. Exmoor Foxfire. Some soft rotten wood glowing in the dark forest floor.

The first time I saw this, I was at college and wondered if someone had slipped something into my drink! But my house mates confirmed it was real, and the next day a lecturer (who studied fungi) explained there are several fungi that cause this phenomenon. One of the most common being the much-maligned Honey Fungus, which is very destructive, killing trees that show any sign of weakness to it.  Its black rhizomes, formed from mycelium, spread underground searching for new hosts and dead wood to rot and consume. This underground network can stretch for miles and live for centuries, killing off trees and making their dead wood glow in the dark.

The glow is a side effect of the fungi consuming its food (in much the same way mammals produce waste heat). In this case, the energy that creates heat in mammals goes to an enzyme that produces the light in the fungus.

I have found it a few times since, but it is rare. Ideally it needs to be warm, wet and totally dark.  The new moon (no moon) at the end of October/early November is the best time to see it (before we get too many frosts).  I have even taken it to show other people, but sadly the glow never lasts for long.  Over the years I have had some funny looks whilst trying to persuade people to go into the cupboard under the stairs to see it…..  especially when I tell them they’ll need to spend several minutes in complete darkness waiting for their eyes to adjust!

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Patrick setting up the bioluminescent wood ready for photographing. 

Luckily I found another piece last week – just in time for #NationalTreeWeek and managed to convince a colleague (Thank you for believing in me, Dan James) with a good-enough camera (it needs a long exposure of up to 4 minutes) to get in the cupboard and start photographing for me. My ambition now is to photograph it on site next year.

If you’d like to join me and help search Exmoor more night-time wildlife, you can sign up to volunteer here.

Patrick Watts-Mabbott (Volunteer and Outreach Officer)

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