Don’t go too wild

Having read and heard a few things recently about the possible detrimental effects of picking your own wild food from hedgerows, meadows and woodlands, we decided to ask our resident foraging expert, Jesper Launder, to give us his take on the “fungi foraging furore”. Over to Jesper…

There seems to a huge amount of media coverage of fungi this autumn. First came the Public Health England announcement in September that more than 80 cases of mushroom poisoning had already been reported, which resulted in widespread coverage on television and radio as well as in newspapers. Ultimately the total numbers this year were no higher than last year, and as ever the most common culprit has been the Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus), a very appealing-looking relative of the commonly cultivated button mushroom. The concept that a mushroom that “looks like a shop mushroom” must be edible is widely, and falsely, believed. The point here is that, while poisonous, yielding a range of unpleasant gastric symptoms, the Yellow Stainer is far from deadly. The implication in these articles is that mushroom picking is profoundly dangerous, something which plays strongly to our British mycophobia or general wariness of all mushrooms not encountered in the supermarket. Yet the tale of the Yellow Stainer highlights that one of the biggest problems and risks to health is ignorance and misinformation. And while the risk of poisoning from deadly mushrooms is real, and does unfortunately occur in the UK on average every four or five years, most mushroom poisonings aren’t severe. Knowing exactly what species you are encountering is simply essential before you even consider eating it.

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From mushroom poisoning to tales of gangs of greedy mushroom foragers decimating wild mushroom stocks, the media has extensively covered the subject for the last couple of months. Reports of woodlands being “stripped bare” of fungi are abounding, with many reports focused on Epping Forest on the outskirts of London and the New Forest in Hampshire. There are genuine reasons to be concerned about the indiscriminate and widespread harvest of wild mushrooms. I would suggest that the most significant of these is the role that fungi play in the food chain. Fungi are a food source for numerous invertebrates and mammals, as well as providing home and shelter for wildlife. And then there is the issue of rare species that are being collected. This is potentially a genuine problem. In the world of mushrooms there is much we do not know, for example, about the life cycle and ecology of many of our commonly encountered species. So it is perhaps unsurprising that we know even less about the rarer species in the UK. Skilled field mycologists with the experience to soundly identify mushroom species are also relatively scarce on the ground, so the finding, identification, and recording of these species is dependant largely on whether a skilled mycologist is active in a given area. So the gaining of insights into new or rare species of fungi is very much at the whim of a chance collision between fruiting mushroom and would-be identifier. It would seem that this widespread and reckless collection of wild mushrooms by “gangs” of foragers is not only denying wildlife a home and a meal, and nature lovers the autumnal joy of fungal finds, but is also dangerously interfering with our ability to learn more about the fascinating and complex ecology of the scarcer species.

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This material is clearly emotive, and most of the articles I have read are aimed largely at feeding the power of these emotions, but often without a sound presentation of the facts. And it is this that gets my goat somewhat. The language used frequently talks of “destruction” and damage to the mushrooms and/or their mycelium, of “trails of destruction” through woodlands. When I think of this I envisage trees being bulldozed, four-wheel drive trucks churning the earth in the depths of pristine woodlands, destroying the habitat, shredding the underground delicate mycelial structures of the many mushroom species to be found. But I doubt if this is happening at all. My sense if that these terms are used precisely because they induce an emotive response. The reality is that while harvesting every mushroom in the woods is problematic, as previously mentioned (and in reality an unrealistic task – mushrooms can be very elusive at times), mushrooms are in fact tenacious organisms, highly responsive to their environment but also highly adaptive. The mycelium (or underground part) of mushrooms can be thought of akin to a plant, with the mushroom that grows above ground being paralleled with a fruit. The blackberry analogy is often mentioned, whereby one considers the impact of picking a handful of blackberries from a bramble bush, and the potential impact this harvest might have on the future health of the bramble. Most people would agree, very little. And for mushrooms the same can be said. Although, when one picks a mushroom, unlike a blackberry, millions of reproductive seeds (in the case of mushrooms, spores) have already been released and distributed. Observational studies have shown no evidence of a reduction in mushroom fruitings in subsequent years following heavy cropping of particular species. The implication here is that whether harvested or left to decay in the woodlands, mushrooms will continue to fruit in future years. I increasingly encounter people talking about the “damage” I am doing to mushrooms by harvesting them from the wild. It certainly seems an issue that lots of people have an opinion on these days, and I find it unfortunate that a more balanced and less emotive message isn’t put across.

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Jesper recommends that a sound harvesting practice would be as follows:

  • It is illegal to harvest wild mushrooms in England for commercial purposes, however collection for personal use is legal. (The law in Scotland allows for commercial harvest too.) Having the permission of the landowner is polite at the very least (although anything wild that you harvest for personal use remains rightfully yours even if you are ejected from the land). Avoid collecting on sites where mushroom collecting is outlawed (e.g. Epping Forest) and on sites where restrictions or byelaws apply such as SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) and National Trust land. There are legal limits on harvest of wild mushrooms for personal use which vary in different parts of the country. Typically 1.5kg is deemed to be an appropriate upper limit for personal use.
  • Given the important role that mushroom fruitings play in the food chain it is prudent to harvest only enough for your needs, leaving a good selection of mature and immature species behind. If pickings are lean I would suggest leaving the little there is for the wildlife in the woods and simply enjoying the sight of your finds. A good photograph of mushrooms you find goes a long way to sating your mushroom-hunting fix, without the necessity to remove the mushroom from the woods. Some of our native edible species are prolific and widely abundant, and where encountered can be harvested within quota every couple of days for a week or more with negligible impact upon the mushroom numbers, and almost certainly upon the wildlife that rely on them as food.
  • The golden rule of wild foraging is the obvious one (I hope!); simply never eat anything that hasn’t been 100% positively identified. When encountering species in the wild that are new to you, limit your harvest and keep examples separate from known edible varieties. Collect a range of sizes if possible but only enough to aid your identification. If you frequently collect wild mushrooms for identification purposes you will inevitably harvest the odd rare species from time to time. But by limiting the number of specimens you harvest, not only will a few more spores be dispersed by the wind, and woodland critters be given the chance of a meal, and should by chance a skilled field mycologist stumble upon the same patch then the obscure possibility of finding out new information might actually become a reality.

Photographs courtesy Finn Topson from a Cracking Good Food wild food foraging trip on Didsbury’s Fletcher Moss, led by Jesper at the end of last month. Our next forage is on Saturday 30 November, and we’ve just released new dates for 2015. Please visit the Cracking Good Food website for more information and how to book: click here to be redirected. Our foraging sessions are £20 per adult and £10 per child. Remember to dress for the weather and wear footwear suitable for walking on possibly muddy paths.

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