I am delighted to publish this guest post from Peter Marren, conservationist, author and fungi expert.
The Forestry Commission has decided to ban the picking of wild fungi in the New Forest. A press release to that effect was despatched and most of the dailies duly reported the ban, uncritically and with approval. The Guardian even found a respected mycologist to say that, in her opinion, picking was harmful. There seems to be a presumption that picking mushrooms is like picking wild flowers – something to be discouraged in this conservation-conscious age. I doubt the FC would have gone so far without a sense that it carries public opinion with it.
Such are opinions. But what about facts? You could spend a long time trawling the scientific literature for evidence that picking is harmful without finding a jot of support. I know this because I did, for my book Mushrooms, which contains a chapter on the picking controversy. Trampling causes damage, yes; damaging the soil profile (an FC speciality), yes; but picking, no. On the contrary, there is quite a lot of evidence that picking, even regular, heavy picking, has no detrimental effect at all. Many woods in Eastern Europe are raked over for fungi on a scale as great as anywhere in Britain and the effect on the next year’s crop seems to be zero. In Oregon a long-term project to assess the effect of picking on one of the New Forest’s target edible species, the Chanterelle found that, after ten years, there was ‘no statistically significant correlation between sporocarp [i.e. the fruiting body] removal and productivity’. In other words picking had no discernible effect whatever. The FC sees such evidence as ‘conflicting’. On the contrary, it looks pretty clear-cut to me.
So, why doesn’t the FC find something better to do, such as managing its forests properly? The answer seems to be that it wants to swim with the current. Foraging, especially of wild fungi, has been given a bad name by stories, reported in the papers with lurid details, of gangs of pickers, often from countries in Eastern Europe with a long tradition of family foraging, who supposedly hoover up every mushroom in sight. But since there are only a dozen or so species gathered for food out of some 2,700 species identified from the New Forest, picking every mushie in sight would be fantastically inefficient. Moreover none of the foraging groups that use the Forest regularly have ever witnessed such a thing. No doubt it happens but the ‘damage’ they do is out of all proportion to the anger it provokes. So an outright ban might look justified, and might even be popular.
It might be worth reminding people that it is the fate of most mushrooms to be eaten, not by human beings but by slugs, maggots, mice and other fauna. Even in the New Forest only a tithe of a percent goes down human gullets. What we do is simply not significant in the survival of wild fungi. It is also worth noting that most of the edible ones are long-lived and that, for them, spores are more in the nature of a long-term insurance policy. Like perennial plants, they do not depend on an annual replenishment. Only a tiny, almost infinitesimal fraction of spores will ever germinate into a fungus.
What the ban will do is to criminalise the minority of harmless, pleasant people who enjoy foraging in the autumn Forest, and those locals who enjoy picking a few chanterelles or blewits for breakfast. Since identifying fungi generally requires microscopic examination, it will presumably discomfort mycologists too. Those 2,700 species are unlikely to become 2,701 unless the FC is pretty free with its licences (welcome to yet more bureaucracy!). From now on those found with a loose mushroom on their person can expect a ticking off from ‘FC staff’, the confiscation of said fungus and its ‘return to the Forest’ (I ask you!). Repeat offenders may face a charge. The FC claims it is ‘appealing to people to support a no-picking code’, but it isn’t as if people have any choice in the matter. The FC is not really appealing but demanding with threats. Whether they have the legal justification to do so is another matter. It admits that there is nothing specific in the by-laws to forbid the picking of fungi. And, given that much of the Forest is a Common with universal access, the Theft Act might not apply either. When, years ago, the FC tried to prosecute an old lady for picking mushrooms it ended up with egg all over its face and a six-figure bill (footed by the taxpayer of course).
What are we missing now that picking fungi is banned? Fun, I would suggest, followed by knowledge, health and outdoor adventure. Foraging brings you close to nature, which is generally regarded as a very good thing, physically and mentally. Foragers care about the natural world and are usually very knowledgeable about it. They are natural conservationists. The Forestry Commission, on the other hand, spent many decades destroying the natural soil profiles and native woodland of the Forest to plant their unloved Christmas trees. Taking lessons in conservation from them is a little like taking tips on orphan adoption from King Herod.
The danger is that the process will not stop here. The ban is supported by the National Trust and the New Forest National Park Authority. It is easy to imagine pressure building up for the extension of similar bans on National Trust land and other National Parks, and even on SSSIs in general. We live in a world of neo-Puritans who seem as happy to ban harmless fun as the Roundheads were to ban Christmas. Moral justification seems more powerful than knowledge and evidence.
Nature is there for looking, not touching. The Forestry Commission says so, and that, it seems, is final.