Beginners Guides to Nature


Over the years I have lead many walks and given various talks on aspects of nature and I have run a course 'Understanding Nature' for beginners to wildlife watching. These activities have resulted in me writing papers and notes to hand out to support what I have been saying and I have grouped them together here on the Nature of Dorset under "Beginners Guides". I have purposely kept them as simple as possible and I have no doubt the specialists will cringe if they stumble upon then and decide to read them! However, I stress again that these are introductory notes to help demystify some aspects of animals and plants for those setting out on the journey to becoming experts themselves one day ...


A Beginners Guide to Fungi

What are fungi?

Contrary to popular belief fungi are NOT plants! Yes, they grow in the ground, they have roots, a stem and a flower head but they are not plants. Fungi have a place of their own in nature classification, they are their own kingdom.

Actually fungi do not grow in the ground, some do but most grow in decaying wood, leaves and other vegetable matter. They do not have roots, the fibres you see if you pull one up are the mycelium (more on this below), the stem is called a stipe and the flower head is known as a cap.

Remember that whilst many fungi have the familiar toadstool shape they also come in many other forms as well.

What is the mycelium?

What you generally see is not really the fungus itself. What you see is the fruiting body; the fungus itself is often unseen living within its host. This active part of the organism is known as the mycelium, fungi belong to the order mycelia, and people who study fungi are mycologists.

The mycelium is generally thin and fibrous. It is present all year round working at dissolving or decaying its host and returning it to soil. Fungi play a vital role in the natural processes of recycling dead matter.

Most fungi are not parasitic and only attack and work on matter that is already dying. Some are parasitic and can cause major problems to forestry and farming but that is not the case for the majority of species.

Species of fungi tend to have a preferred host and therefore you will find that species in a habitat that supports its host. Some, such as the Birch Polypore, will only ever be found on a specific host but others are more catholic and may appear on a variety of host types. Many prefer broad-leaved woodland, other coniferous woodland, whereas other are found on pasture and yet others on bare ground. Some like acid soils and occur on heath, others require alkaline conditions and appear on chalk and limestone. If you want to identify a fungus then one of the primary questions to consider is what is it growing on.

What about toadstools?

A toadstool is the popular name for the most common type of fruiting bodies of fungi; those with a stipe and a cap. A mushroom is, again, not a specific scientific term but a general name for some edible species.

I suppose about 60% or so of fungi have a fruiting body in the form of a toadstool but there are other types, notably brackets. You also find balls, stars, jellies, crusts and corals as well as some really bizarre ones.

As a simple rule, toadstools tend to appear from the ground (often from buried dead branches or twigs, or perhaps leaf litter) whereas brackets tend to appear on trunks of trees that are still standing or have fallen.

The role of the fruiting body is to disperse spores to spread the fungus and so prolong its life. The ‘fruits’ can appear any time in some species but most commonly, fruiting bodies appear in the autumn and so October and November are the best time to go looking for them.

In toadstools and brackets the spores are released from either gills on the underside of the cap or from a spongy ‘porous’ underside. Establishing which is also important in identification. Remember, too, that toadstool caps can also be convex, flat or concave (funnel shaped).

How do I identify fungi?

There is a simple answer to this question: with difficulty!

In many cases a detailed examination is required that encompasses a physical examination as well as considering smell and taste and even the colour and shape of spores! You will see many fungi that you will never name.

As soon as a fruiting body appears it starts to degenerate. It has a very short life span, in some cases as little as a day! They are also a key source of food for many insects and other invertebrates and they soon start to be eaten away. They are also prone to weather damage.

I am against picking fungi fruits for two reasons:

1.       They are a vital part of the life cycle of the fungus and should be left to fulfil that role. In some areas fungi are becoming rare because they are over picked. There are plenty of farmed mushrooms available in the shops, thick to those!

2.       Some species are fatally poisonous. Even handling some species without actually eating them can result in severe liver disease and even death. The Death Cap is so named for good reason! Unless you know exactly what you are doing, leave them alone to do the task they have.

Just to add to the difficulties, species are in fruit and so identifiable for a short period each year, you almost have to start again each year! Until recently very few had common names, just somewhat complex latin or scientific names and they can be difficult to remember and work with. Recently a lot of work has gone in to developing a set of common English names to make them more accessible to casual observers but unless you have a good, modern field guide these names will be missing.

So why bother?

A good question! Fungi are fascinating and worthy of attention and, with a bit of effort, it is possible to get familiar with, say, 100 or so species and to recognise and name them. Look at fungi, understand their role, marvel at their variety but do not be too despondent if you can’t name them all.



Peter Orchard 

A Beginners Guide to Orchids

True botanists will probably cringe at what I am about to write as it is totally unscientific! Sadly, I think science can sometimes get in the way of the casual observers enjoyment of nature by introducing difficult names and complex structures which can serve to confuse or put off we non-scientists. 

However, in my opinion, the orchids encountered in Dorset fall in to three types, the spikes, the insect look-a-likes and the oddities! As I warned you, that is not scientific but it is a starting point in identification. Once you have decided which of these three it might be then you need to look for distiguishing features such as the presence of spots on the leaves and stem, the position and shape of the leaves, the structure of the flower head and so on. Finally, and yet still important, the habitat in which it is occurring and the time of year it is flowering.

You will need to note all of these factors before turning to your field guide for help. In your field guide you will probably find around thirty five or so orchids listed along with some helleborines which are closely related to orchids so, in effect, you are probably looking for one species from just fifty maximum. Your task is actually not even that difficult as there are probably no more than twenty species commonly found in Dorset. 

The insect look-a-likes are quite easy as the most frequent you will encounter is the bee orchid but early in the year on the Purbeck cliffs you may also encounter early spider orchid. The wasp orchid is a subtle variation of the bee orchid which you may also chance upon on the Purbeck cliffs.


The oddities, too, are fairly straight forward. The bird's-nest orchid can be found in beech woods and has no chlorophyll and are pale coloured. It is easier to confuse this with toothwort than with other orchids. Autumn lady's-tresses is totally unmistakable because of its unique appearance and common twayblade is also quite distinctive but could be dismissed as greater plantain rather than another orchid. 


That brings us to the spikes! This is where it gets more difficult but some are quite distinctive. The greater butterfly orchid for example is cream coloured whereas most other spikes range from mauve through pink to purple. The conical shape identifies the pyramidal orchid leaving just another seven to consider.

This little chart may help:






Common Spotted Orchid

Spots on leaves/stem


Grass and woods


Heath Spotted Orchid

Spots on leaves/stem


Heath and bog


Early Marsh Orchid

 No spots


Damp meadows


Southern Marsh Orchid

 No spots


Damp meadows


Early Purple Orchid

 Spots on leaves/stem


Woods and grass


Green-winged Orchid

 No spots


Grass (short turf)


Fragrant orchid

 No spots


Chalk grass


Just a final word of warning! Some of the spike species readily hybridise and can make things even more difficult.

In addition to those mentioned you can also find bog, fly and frog orchid in Dorset as well as the marsh helleborine.

Happy orchid hunting and please, if you find them, leave them alone!


Peter Orchard

A Beginners Guide to Reptiles


Reptiles and amphibians are related although there are some fundamental differences between them. The two are usually grouped together and are sometimes known as herptiles. I will not attempt to explain the differences as my purpose here is to help with finding and identifying them rather than understanding their biology.

The reptiles seen in Dorset, and we have all six native species plus a couple of introduced species, are restricted to snakes and lizards. Worldwide, reptiles species are numerous and much more diverse. Our British native snakes are the adder (sometimes called the viper), the grass snake and the smooth snake. Our lizard species are the slow-worm, the common lizard and the sand lizard. In addition to these native species you can also find the wall lizard and the green lizard; these are often around the sandy cliffs of Bournemouth and Boscombe.

Amphibians are restricted to two groups, newts and frogs/toads. The three species of native newts you can encounter here are the great crested, the palmate and the smooth newt. We also have the common frog, common toad and natterjack toad as native species and the introduced marsh frog. The natterjack toad and the marsh frog are very restricted in range.

Apart from the native species listed and the more well established colonies of introduced species you can encounter other oddities that have been either released or have escaped from captivity. Always expect the unexpected, especially near large human settlements! There can be exotic species of lizard seen, in some ponds there are terrapins and you may even encounter salamanders. Most escaped species do not survive long in the wild but some have thrived and can be a nuisance, especially terrapins!

Reptiles and amphibians are generally considered to be cold blooded but this is not strictly true. That said, they do not have the same mechanism for controlling their body temperature as mammals and need to use external sources of heat, usually the sun, to warm themselves and use water to cool down if they become too hot. When cool they are lethargic and inactive, when warm they can move very quickly, even snakes that have no legs!

All the animals in this group are insectivorous and some, the snakes, also feed on larger prey. Grass snakes, for example, are very fond of frogs! As a result of their diet all of these creatures spend their life on primarily on land. It is not true that amphibians only live in water; they enter water, usually still water in ponds, to breed. They also use water to cool down in hot weather (see above) and grass snakes can also be seen hunting in water for food.

Why are all six species of reptiles found in Dorset? Mainly because the Dorset heath is ideal habitat for them. The sandy soil is ideal for breeding and there is an ample food supply. The limestone cliffs of the Purbeck coast are also good places to for reptiles but they are difficult to find here as much of their range is in somewhat inaccessible places. Obviously Dorset's warm, southerly position also helps.

Amphibians can be more difficult. The best time to see newts is in spring when they are in water to breed. The rest of the year they are somewhat elusive. Frogs and toads are more usually seen in gardens than in the wild these days.

In general, all of these species are declining in Dorset (and throughout the British Isles), primarily because of habitat loss and fragmentation of breeding colonies leading to the weakening of gene pools. The heaths are prone to human disturbance through dog walking, mountain bike riding and purposely or neglectfully started fires. The rapidly declining population of insects is not helping their cause either. Some species are said to be well under half of the population levels of 50 years or so ago. Much thought and conservation effort is going in to try and reverse these trends.

There is no single place to see all of the creatures, each has its own unique niche, but by far the best place I know to see a number of them is the Dorset Wildlife Trust reserve at Higher Hyde Heath. Joining the Wednesday morning guided walk at Arne is also a good way to get familiar with some of these species.

In the field:

Based on what we know about the life style of these animals it is possible to draw some conclusions on how best to find and watch these attractive fascinating creatures:

  1. Find the right habitat. Most of these creatures have pretty specific requirements that determine where they live and so will limit the likely places you can find them. Finding a known site where they occur is an obviously good starting point
  2. Look early in the season. When they first emerge from hibernation (around March in most years) the weather is colder and they are lacking in warmth and strength and so are less able to be active. At this time of year they spend much more time basking in the sun gaining warmth.
  3. Look early in the day or on days when the weather is cool and cloudy. To keep active they need to keep warm and so look looking for them on a warm, sunny afternoon is probably not going to very effective. In bad weather they shelter in the safety of cover so do not look if the conditions are totally unfavourable.
  4. Tread carefully. These animals can detect ground vibration from your footsteps from some distance away and if they are warm they will move away long before you get to them. Even snakes can move quickly despite having no legs!
  5. Look for sunny spots. South facing slopes are good for lizards and snakes. Look also on fallen tree trunks, log piles, posts in the ground, any prominent feature in the sun. On cooler days look for things like tyres, tin or tiles, anything made of a material that absorbs heat as these creatures will often use them to absorb heat from.
  6. Look in damp or dark, cool places for frogs, toads and newts. They do not like to get too hot or their skin can dry out. In really hot weather look for them in ponds, pools in ditches. This is also where you will possibly find them in spring when they are breeding.
  7. Reptiles in particular are creatures of habit. Once they find a warming spot that suits them they will continue to use it unless it proves to be dangerous! If you see a lizard or snake but it detects you coming and slips away, move off for a while and come back slowly later, it may well have returned to its favoured spot again by then.
  8. Exercise extreme care if you lift a sheet of corrugated iron to see what is underneath. You must not harm these creatures nor should you handle them - they are protected by law! You may also find an adder in such places and, when threatened, they can bite. An adder bite is rarely fatal but I understand it can be quite unpleasant!

Just to emphasize that last point again. ALWAYS put nature first, do not do anything to harm or unduly distress any creature, even for a better view and especially for a better photograph. Do not take specimens unless you are engaged in scientific research for the benefit of the conservation of these species. If you hurt yourself it is your fault but there is no excuse for hurting a helpless or harmless creature!

Peter Orchard