Campaign Notebook: What looks like snow but acts like paper? | Environment


Keen gardeners are familiar with snow mold, a fungal disease that causes off-white patches on lawns in early spring after the snow melts. But then there’s this, a blanket-like blanket of strange white material in a field below Screel Hill on the Solway Firth. In all my years of observing nature, I have never seen anything like this before.

Initially, I sped by to my favorite beach with Connie the jumper, thinking the residue was salt, like the salt pans in Portugal. After all, this hollow of reeds often contains a pool of water. But on second thought, it was too far from the sea to be salt water. On previous visits here I had assumed (always dangerous with an unnatural history) that this pool fluctuated with the water table – either that or it simply contained rainwater. There are similar small lakes on the west coast of Ireland, called turloughs; they appear and disappear depending on whether the rainwater can flow into the ground. There is a turlough in walesone in Norfolk and three in Northern Ireland. However, there are none in Scotland.

Upon closer inspection, I discovered an extensive fibrous blanket with properties similar to those of handmade paper. It was smooth on the surface and rough below where grasses and reeds clung to it, and you could even write on it. It creaked under my feet – and under Connie’s – and when I cut off a few pieces with scissors, I felt like I was cutting through a cereal box; as an elementary school teacher, it was like being back in the classroom. The natural sculptures he made were also fascinating: like a galleon, because it clung to the clumps of reeds. Think lampshades with cheap paper stretched over the thread.

What is this mysterious substance? It still appears to be snow mold, only the fungal spores have multiplied at an unusually fast rate. It is likely that this location had the perfect microclimate of initial snow cover, temperature and humidity for it to flourish. But why it is so papery is a puzzle, and upon investigation I have found no photographs, illustrations or even any written records of such a large cover.

We didn’t stay too long after all because, like other moulds, their spores can trigger an allergic reaction in some people, and even in dogs – “Connie, come here now!”

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