Updated: Mar 3, 2022
It appears that the plague of spartina sweeping round the North Wirral foreshore, from West Kirby, through Hoylake, Meols, and beyond, has a poisonous sting in its tail.
Joshua Styles, a botanist apparently studying the flora on Hoylake beach, has recently reported an infestation of not one, but two toxic fungi growing there. He also says that every spartina plant examined on Hoylake Beach was infested with at least ergot, and with many having a dual infestation with both ergot and wilt of melon fungus.
These fungi, ergot (Claviceps spartina) and wilt of melon fungus (Gibberella gordonii), are both well known to produce mycotoxins capable of inducing illness and death in all mammals and birds, including wild animals, farm animals, companion animals, all birds, and indeed humans.
The simultaneous presence of both of these fungi prompted one mycology group to state:
“There is a splendid article in the Mycologist vol8 (1) p9, Feb 1994 by Tom Preece about this association of two fungi on Spartina. It seems both fungi contain toxins so if eaten a double dose of poison is ingested.”
The poisonous ergot is probably the best characterised of the two fungi so will be the focus here.
What is ergot (and wilt of melon fungus)?:
This is a picture of ergot (black pod like projections) and wilt of melon fungus, WMF, (orange structures) infesting Spartina Anglica. Note the ergot is a parasite infecting the spartina, whilst the WMF is a hyper parasite, infecting the ergot.
Ergot is a toxic fungal parasite of Spartina that infects the flowering heads, partially reducing plant fertility, but NOT rendering the spartina sterile. Spartina has a way round this reduction in fertility by lateral spread using underground runners (rhizomes), thus side stepping the need for fertility and seed based propagation (although this still happens).
Wilt of melon fungus is a hyper-parasite that infects the ergot parasite. Both are toxic and can act as a double toxic cocktail if WMF infected ergot is ingested
What are the signs of ergot poisoning?:
When ergot is ingested orally there is a high risk of poisoning, and it can be fatal.
Early symptoms of poisoning include nausea, vomiting, muscle pain and weakness, numbness, itching, and rapid or slow heartbeat. Ergot poisoning can progress to gangrene, vision problems, confusion, spasms, convulsions, unconsciousness, and death
How can ergot be eradicated?:
Once ergot/MWF is established in a spartina population the only real method of eradication of ergot is the removal of the spartina substrate that the ergot (and thus MWF) thrives on.
In conclusion it is hoped that this article gives people a measure of the public health and animal risk faced on Hoylake beach as a result of ergot/MWF infestation.
Whilst this infestation may have some public health implications, the risk of walking dogs, and wild marine mammals and birds, ingesting fallen ergot in puddles etc is much greater and should be considered by the parts of the council responsible for beach management and risk assessments.
As a responsible botanist Mr Styles surely will have informed Wirral Council of his findings, and the possible impact on human and animal health, and hopefully the council is taking all relevant steps to eradicate this possible health hazard.
This fungi has recently spread closer to West Kirby Beach. The black ergot pods were blown off into puddles after the storms. Wirral Council Public Health Department have been informed of this latest spread and replied saying it's in hand but no notifications received as yet!
Until Wirral Council take this issue seriously and investigates, with the production of the necessary risk assessments etc, we remain extremely concerned.
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