Each year I publish my Autumn mushroom hunting dates and each year I seem to get quite a bit of flack, almost always uninformed or misguided, sometimes slightly abusive. Mushroom hunting seems to be one of those topics that everyone, regardless of how little they know about it, has an opinion about. So, this year I would prefer not to engage in the same seven or eight predictable debates about whether hunting for wild mushrooms is or isn’t a good thing to do. I hope you will find the answers, if not, at least my opinions, below.
1. The majority of the mushroom forays I run are on private property, where I have the permission and approval of the land owner, to pick mushrooms and take other people to do so and to charge them for doing this activity with me. It’s private property and if we wanted to hold a festival for 30000 people and all dance naked trough the woods, it would be nobody’s business but our own. As a guide, The New Forest sets a limit of 1.5kg per person per visit (a guideline, not an enforceable law), for personal consumption but when I take out a group, not only are we on private land so not subject to this restriction, we pick only a fraction of this amount….an average walk with 12 people culminates in a total haul of about 3kg, everyone gets a little bag to take home but the main focus is on learning about the mushrooms and the woodland they support, not on picking. When we do visit other areas, theses are predominantly pine plantations, managed woodland and heathland, not the delicate and ancient eco-systems that so often get mentioned in the press.
2.I am not a commercial forager and I never have been, although I have no qualms those who are, providing they do so in a sustainable manner. My activities and the events I run are never focused on collecting anything in quantity, I do, however, charge people to come on wild food walks with me, during which I teach them to understand and respect the environment, equip them with some basic knowledge and point out some of the dangers, pitfalls etc.
3. If you are getting your opinions from Wikipedia, The Daily Mail and other newspapers, I suggest you do some more reliable research. Each year, all the papers churn out some very lazy desk top journalism, and always regurgitate the same four or five points from the previous years…these are often wildly inaccurate. Common themes include warnings about mass poisonings, an incorrectly labelled photo of a Death Cap mushroom, racists stories about gangs of “Eastern European” foragers, something about Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, the tragic story of Nicholas Evans (author of The Horse Whisperer) who fed his family with deadly poisonous Web Cap mushrooms. Ridiculous claims are made by amateur mycologists, specifically Sarah Cadbury, who’s wild, sensationalist and utterly inaccurate comments, annually make it into the national press and who uses the word “Stripping” as in “The forest is being stripped of all it’s fungi”, to describe the activities of any and all mushroom pickers. Let’s be specific, because she never is; the definition of the word Strip is “to remove ALL coverings from”. The combined effect of everyone picking mushrooms in The New Forest is the equivalent of an erotic dancer removing just one of her earrings; she would hardly be able to call herself a stripper. These articles are basically just space fillers and often feature incorrect photos and lots of badly researched information. Do not trust them.
4. Mushroom (or more specifically the mycelium that creates them) are perennial organisms and reproduce almost entirely underground. Spreading spores is a way of colonising new areas and is more an insurance policy than anything else. Suggestions that picking the fruiting bodies (that means the mushrooms) will effect future growth is incorrect and unfounded. The primary danger to the future of our fungi and as such, the trees and other organisms they support, is from loss of habitat, curtailing the mushroom mycelium’s ability to spread, not from people picking them. The Uk is the most deforested country in Europe, less than 12% woodland compared to average levels of 20-30% in most other countries. Further more, we have just 2% of our old growth forests remaining. If, as I do, you really care about this, join The Woodland Trust and other campaign groups. Airports, roads, supermarkets, housing expansion, FRACKING….these are the threats to our wildlife, not people picking wild mushrooms.
5. With regard to the idea that over picking will harm the future growth of fungi, deprive other creatures of a food source or damage the environment, I think it’s best to look at the case of the Chanterelle mushroom, the single most consumed wild mushroom world wide. Each year literally tens of thousands of tons ( can you picture that) of this mushroom, are picked and eaten, they are all wild, it cannot be cultivated. The best and really the only complete survey on how mass picking effects fungi, has been carried out across the last 15-20 years, looking specifically at the Chanterelle. And how is it doing as a result of this furious assault on it’s fruit? Well actually it’s thriving and numbers are actually slightly up, not down. Here’s the survey…
6. Think of mushrooms as the fruit of a huge underground tree, sometimes they have good years and sometimes bad but we would not suggest that Oak trees were scarce if one year they didn’t produce any acorns. Various fungi, in my experience, seem to fruit prolifically in roughly seven year cycles but these are subject to the whims of the weather, temperature etc and often a healthy mushroom mycelium will hunker down for many years, concentrate on spreading under the ground and fruit only when the time is right. No mushrooms does not mean the organism that creates them is not alive and well.
7. Effects on other animals and damage to woodland. I have to return again to my point about loss of habitat being the real problem but also add that 99.9 % of the fungi I come across, no one else will ever see. They are hidden away in the woods, in rural areas or just hiding in plain site in your local park, the point being, there is more, far more, than enough to support the creatures that rely on fungi as a food source, a breeding ground or a home. For every exaggerated report of people picking all the mushrooms in an area, there are ten thousand patches that no one ever finds. Each year, I find massive swathes of wild fungi, literally millions of fruit bodies, that go totally undisturbed, many hidden deep in the woods but often huge patches of gourmet mushrooms, completely visible, near roads and woodland edges, that get left to their own devices.
8. Enough racism please! Eastern Europeans, dawn raids, organised gangs, walkie talkies, blanket picking and that guy in the car park sorting them out..please, enough….We see an Englishman with a basket of blackberries and congratulations are in order, we see a Latvian family with a few carrier bags of mushrooms and suddenly there’s talk of foreigners raping our forests. I am not saying that commercial mushroom picking is an urban myth, far from it, but the press are constantly reprinting the same article featuring most of the shock headlines above. I spend a lot of time in the woods in the autumn, far more than most people and hand on heart, I have never seen one of these organised gangs, but I have met three or four families out picking mushrooms together, a perfectly normal pastime in most of Europe but not in the fungiphobic UK. It’s just not part of our cultural heritage, but how quick we are to raise arms the second anyone else takes an interest. Has anyone, who doesn’t work at the Daily Mail, actually witnessed these gangs at work, not the apparent aftermath, but actually seen a big group of guys with radios and knives sweeping the woodland? I have seen a group of Italian chefs from London, out on a Cep picking mission but I’m sure that’s just fine with the national press, Middle England and the happy customers tucking into a Porcini risotto at Jamie’s Italian.
9. Other comments I have had thrown at me in the past relate to damage to the woodlands, insect life and to rare plants. I have to refer back to my points above about loss of habitat being the real problem, but also to mention that most of the events I run take place in areas that are not old growth forest but predominantly pine plantations, often supporting very little other plant life; the damage, or lack of it, caused by a group of people out to look at and pick the odd wild mushroom, is imperceptible, compared to numerous other recreational and non recreational uses of the forest. What’s more, in such screen obsessed times, I make utterly no apology for encouraging people to get out of the city, off their arses and out in the woods. I have also had political theories waved at me including “The Tragedy of the Commons” something that I have carefully researched and does not in anyway apply to mushroom hunting. Before taking the moral high ground and/or developing opinions with little to no research behind them, I’d ask you seriously to ask yourself, what exactly it is you are doing personally, to help or protect the environment and most importantly, before suggesting that others going mushroom hunting might cause damage to our natural world, to consider the impact, damage, loss of habitat and other factors connected with every single piece of food you eat, whether from your local shop, the supermarket or that Costa coffee cup in your hand right now. I truly love our native woodland and as anyone who has joined me in the last few years will tell you, I teach people to respect and enjoy it, never to abuse it.
10. Since writing this last year, a few extra points have sprung to mind, one which specifically applies to The New Forest and I have discussed it in detail with the respected mycologist, Clifford Davy. For centuries, the right of Panage has allowed people to graze their pigs on the forest every autumn, to take advantage of the fallen acorns, a great source of food for them. Although numbers are less than a thousand now, as recently as the 19th century, between 6-7000 pigs were released onto the forest and this, unlike the activities of foragers, does have a damaging effect on the mycelium due to the disruption caused to the top layer of soil…add to this the cattle and ponies that graze on the forest all year round and you have thousands of animals roaming and digging up the woods. And, the effect of all this activity across the centuries? Nothing at all, the mycelium gets damaged and over time, repairs itself, carries on with it’s business as it always has. Another point to consider is the largely unchecked growth of highly invasive Rhododendron species, responsible for smothering some huge swathes of fragile woodland. I also consider The Forestry Commission’s policy of spraying Glyphosate (Round Up) in some areas of The New Forest, to be deeply questionable and often, if not always, unnecessary. Furthermore, the damaged caused by agricultural chemicals; the majority of scientific data puts the blame for any decline in fungi since the 1980’s squarely on increased soil nitrogen and emissions, a direct effect of huge scale fertiliser use (Refs: Arnolds, 2010; Dahlberg, 2010). Lastly, I have to wonder why our fungi are apparently so precious and so fragile, compared to those of other European countries, Poland for example, where this whole debate is considered ridiculous and where annually, mushrooms are picked on mass and have been for hundreds of years, possibly thousands, without ever effecting future harvests or the environments in which they grow.