Turkey Tail Fungi | Photograph by G Stride

The first UK study into using fungi to clean our rivers and streams of nutrient pollution is under way thanks to the New Forest National Park Authority and partners.

The New Forest is a special and internationally important area for fungi and is a stronghold for many rare and endangered species.

Scientists will test whether common fungi species’ natural ability to break down pollutants and clean up damaged ecosystems could be harnessed (a process called ‘mycoremediation’).

The £14,000 project led by the National Park Authority (NPA) has secured funding from New Forest conservation charities the New Forest Trust and Friends of the New Forest, together with Natural England, and marks a collaboration with the Freshwater Habitats Trust and the Environment Agency to discover new ways to naturally combat water pollution.

The NPA’s Head of Environment and Rural Economy Paul Walton said: ‘It is all down to the fungi’s unique ability to decompose anything and, from that, recycle nutrients.

Because fungi have been around for an exceptionally long time, they have a remarkably diverse evolutionary history and have stored information in their DNA on how to break down and metabolise a huge array of organic matter including those which now act as pollutants.

This power to turn large complex molecules into simpler readily available forms from which they grow their fruiting bodies can be observed everywhere, from crumbling logs in the woods to your own compost heaps at home.’

It is not the first time that fungi have been called upon to help the environment.

They have been incorporated into various schemes across the globe, from the breakdown of toxic sludge on beaches to removing E.coli from sewage.

At a time when the extinction rate for freshwater species is six times that of marine and terrestrial species it is hoped the study could find new ways to reverse the decline in freshwater biodiversity.

The New Forest is one of the most exceptional areas for freshwater biodiversity in the UK.

It is home to our rarest freshwater species and encompasses some of the largest areas of designated land and sea for freshwater and marine wildlife.

It is hoped this new method could not only help protect rivers from pollutants but also the coastal areas where they join the sea.

The study focuses on areas with known water pollution issues for nitrogen and phosphate.

Filters are made from hessian sacks, containing woodchip and fungi sourced locally to the test sites.

Over the next year, water samples will be collected monthly at the private site near Lymington and tested for nutrient pollution.

Experts hope the final scientific report will lead to further research being conducted.