I knew something was rumbling in the undergrowth and in late July 2015, a journalist from the Bournemouth local paper asked me to respond to some surprising words delivered by my friend, Sarah Cadbury, to the Verderers of the New Forest. I duly responded. A day or two later, a journalist from the Times asked if I would write a 300 word rebuttal. On Saturday 25th I did a Google search on the story and found myself in the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. And not in a good way. The Verders were bystanders in this but I thought I owed them a letter. Here it is.
The Verderer’s Court of the New Forest
I am writing both to the Court and to the Forestry Commission on the subject of wild mushroom hunting in the Forest. It is my intention to copy this letter to other interested parties and to post it on my website, wild-food.net.
As I am sure you are aware, I have been mentioned in the newspapers and on broadcast media as being instrumental in damaging the mycota of the New Forest. I have no doubt that this is a reflection of my small claims to fame, rather than what I actually do. Newspapers love any hint of scandal which relates to a public figure, no matter how small his or her public profile.
My purpose in writing this letter is not (just) to defend against the accusations made or reported but to explore what may be done to protect the Forest mycota without alienating the public from the natural world. I do hope you will bear with me, and I apologise that this letter is rather long.
First, I must defend my own position.
I obtain written permission from the Forestry Commission for my fungus forays, so accusations of illegality are quite untrue and I have found them very hurtful. I have an extremely good relationship with the Forestry Commission and take (free) forays for them and with them every year. They trust that what I tell the public is conducive to good behaviour and encourages a love of the natural world by actually showing it to the public in the raw.
On my own forays (which involve a maximum of about 18 people, not 25, and mostly consists of 15) I insist that no-one pick any fungus without my express permission. This avoids picking species twice and picking rare species at all. I lay out a table at the end of the day of all species found (less the rare ones) and label them with their common and Latin names and talk through them all, edible or not.
I allow limited picking of common edible fungi and we usually end the day with about 1.5kg which we cook. I do not encourage people to pick fungi to take home. I teach the importance of the fungi, the conservation issues they face, good picking practice and I explain their place in the natural world. I am extremely proud of what I do as people see the natural world in a new light once they have encountered it close-up and with explanation.
The effect of picking on wild mushroom populations.
The importance of the New Forest is down to its mix of beech, birch and oak, and to a lesser extent the planted conifers, but more than this it is its age. Its long life has allowed many rare fungi to become established and common species to find an extensive home.
As I am sure you know, collecting fungi does no more damage than collecting blackberries or crab apples. Mushrooms are the ‘fruit’ of a larger and very long-lived underground organism – the mycelium. Some research has been done on this and no loss of fungi due to picking has been observed.
I despair at the occasional reports of fungi being depleted by picking as this is a reflection of a lack of understanding of the biology involve. Mushrooms are, indeed, just the ‘fruiting’ bodies, but they do not appear reliably every year, fooling people into thinking that they have been ‘picked-out’. I have known certain fungi to stop fruiting for about ten years before resuming. The fungus was there all the time.
Fungi do not produce fruiting bodies and their spores for nothing, but it is a secondary reproductive strategy. The mycota of the New Forest is safe because it is a permanent habitat where the very long-lived mycelium can flourish. It may be useful as a reproductive resource for newly established woodlands within the Forest and beyond, and it is arguable that mushrooms should be left to produce their spores so that populations can be established elsewhere. However, even with the best efforts of pickers, both commercial and private, many, many thousands of mature mushrooms go unpicked and are left to produce trillions of spores.
Overall, I have seen no difference in the size and diversity of fungus populations in thirty-five years of close observation. In continental Europe, mushrooms have been picked for millennia and the fact that they are still picked today speaks volumes for the robust nature of the fungi.
In a way, the species that are picked by foragers are a relatively trivial component of the New Forest mycota. I have the book published by my friend, the late and much lamented, Gordon Dickson, on the New Forest fungi. It contains records of a huge number of species. Those fungi that are picked for the table, however, are generally common as there are no British fungi (apart from truffles which do not occur in the Forest) which are both rare and very valuable. A rough estimate would put the edible species collected at less than one percent of the fungal species that exist in the New Forest. It may be said that the edible fungi form a relatively high proportion of the fungal biomass, but that would contradict any assertion that they are threatened!
Caveats on the above.
I cannot quantify the effects on certain dependent invertebrates of picking mushrooms. In my opinion, however, sufficient fungi escape collection for populations to survive, and the large extent of the New Forest allows recolonization where local loss occurs. At least three of the ten or so most widely collected species (chanterelle, trumpet chanterelle and hedgehog mushroom) have no associated invertebrates.
If there is anything I deplore about wholesale collecting it is what town planners call ‘public utility’. An area of forest that has suffered the attentions of indiscriminate pickers is a sad and sorry sight.
Populations of rare species do need to be left undisturbed as they are the last bastion against (at least) local extinction. Collectors sometimes pick rare species out of ignorance and education (which is my primary aim) is the key to preventing such mishaps.
I have been studying the New Forest mycota since about 1980 and feel I know it as well as anyone alive. Even in those early days large vans would appear, dropping-off men with sacks. They would collect Penny Bun mushrooms and then be picked up a few hours later in the same van. I did not particularly like what they did, and do not much like what their successors do now, though I can give no strong scientific reason why I think what they did was detrimental to the fungi as I do not think that it was particularly so. It just seemed excessive. (Note: the effect on the mycophagous invertebrates, as explained to you, I understand, by my friend and fellow long-time British Mycological Society member, Sarah Cadbury, is arguably a more important matter, but not one - to my knowledge - that has been quantified – but see above).
The situation as it now stands in the Forest is that there are three ‘types’ of foraging activity being pursued:
Private individuals collecting fungi under the 1.5kg/day rule.
Organised forays by the Forestry Commission or with their permission.
The first two are clearly legal (assuming the limit is observed and permission obtained) and the Forest seems perfectly capable of accommodating the relatively small amounts they collect – and I reiterate my point about edible fungi being a tiny proportion of the fungi in the New Forest. The third, however, is clearly not legal.
Anecdotal evidence of people turning up with refrigerated vans are rife and I have seen the tragic piles of discarded fungi in the carparks where large bands have gone out collecting at random, relying on a single ‘expert’ to sort the wheat from the chaff.
Suggestions on ways to protect the fungi.
I do not think that private collection has any detrimental effect on the fungi in the New Forest. It is arguable (just) that commercial collection does. This is already an illegal activity as it is in clear contravention of the 1968 Theft Act. It would be legal if permission was obtained, but permission has never been obtained, to my knowledge.
The Forestry Commission attempted a prosecution against a commercial collector some years ago which failed. This was due to the peculiar circumstances of the collector – she was a commoner of the Forest, at least that is what I understand. This has, understandably, made them reluctant to pursue anyone else. Sarah Cadbury has suggested a blanket ban, but this is absurdly excessive and, given the resource limitations of the Forestry Commission, impossible to police or maintain.
My suggestion is that, rather this wildly excessive blanket ban, the Forestry Commission should bite the bullet and pursue one or two prosecutions against clear-cut cases of commercial collection. Illegal collecting takes place now because no sanctions are ever taken. There is absolutely no point in introducing a new law when the existing law is more than adequate but not invoked.
The 1.5kg limit for collecting could be reduced to 1kg. Notices could be posted at the car-parks to inform people of this ‘rule’, together with pleas to respect the fungi. It would cost money to introduce and police these measures, but these would be less than those involved in a total ban.
Not all of the New Forest is ancient woodland. As you know, there are two large areas in which picking has long been banned and I would support any move that would extend this ban to some of the ancient enclosures where the truly rare species occur. Obviously, people do not collect these species (though there are exceptions) as they are, well, rare, and few are edible, but it would retain the biological diversity in all of its components.
Finally, it cannot be assumed that the foraging of wild mushrooms (or anything else) is the self-indulgence that it is sometimes portrayed to be. Foraging is in our very nature and I have seen people on my forays in tears at the joy of pursuing so natural an activity. I respectfully ask that you do not take away from the public this connection to both themselves and to the natural world.
John Wright FLS
John Wright: 10th Aug 2015 20:26:00
Come and book on one of my own forays. Other forays will be posted elsewhere with links to the organisation running the day.
I knew something was rumbling in the undergrowth and in late July 2015, a journalist from the Bournemouth local paper asked me to respond to some surprising words delivered by my friend, Sarah Cadbury, to the Verderers of the New Forest. I duly responded. A day or two later, a journalist from the Times asked if I would write a 300 word rebuttal. On Saturday 25th I did a Google search on the story and found myself in the Daily Mail, The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. And not in a good way. The Verders were bystanders in this but I thought I owed them a letter. Here it is. The Verderer’s Court of the New Forest I am writing both to the Court and to the Forestry Commission on the subject of wild mushroom hunting in the Forest. It is my intention to copy this letter to othe...
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