Tag Archives: fungi foraging

Three Serious English Poisonous Mushroom Incidents in 3 weeks

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com

01/09/2017

Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus)

There has been a spate of poisonings and near-poisonings involving wild fungi in England this August. That they happened in August is itself unusual – in many years the toxic species involved haven’t even started fruiting by now. This year the main fungi season has started early, and some species have been fruiting very abundantly, and this includes some of the most dangerous poisonous species. Combined with the ever-increasing number of people foraging for fungi in the UK, a spate of incidents involving poisonous varieties was probably inevitable. However, these incidents expose a persistent myth – a hangover from our long-standing mycophobia. The impression given is that fungi foraging is a dangerous pastime and even “experts” can get into serious trouble. This is simply not true, as anybody who really does know what they are doing will confirm.

The first case involved some fungi picked on Dartmoor about three weeks ago. It has not, to my knowledge, been reported in the national media, but the victim’s friend’s sister notified the

Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda)

foraging community via social media. She told us that the victim “knows his mushrooms”, and that he had offered his friend some too, but she had rejected them because they were too infested with insect grubs. The insect grubs wouldn’t have harmed her, but had she eaten the fungi then she might have died. The victim is currently in hospital, on dialysis, suffering from kidney failure and in need of a transplant. Within a couple of days, confirmation emerged of the species involved: the victim had mistaken a Deadly Webcap (Cortinarius rubellus) for a Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda). The discussion on social media immediately turned to how this could possibly have happened. How could somebody who “knows his mushrooms” have made this particular mistake? The answer is that this is simply not possible. Blewits are blueish-purple-grey, and while there are plenty of Webcaps which are a similar colour, one or two of which are indeed easily mistaken for Blewits, Deadly Webcaps are red-orange. The two fungi also have very different gills and grow at different times of the year – you wouldn’t expect to find a Wood Blewit in England before October, even in a year where everything is early. In short, this is precisely the sort of mistake a novice would make, not an experienced shroomer.

Thai Death Soup (photo by Stephanie Jayne Thomas)

The second case involved absolute beginners: two Thai ladies who had never been mushroom foraging before. They had encountered a local forager who’d been picking Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they decided to pick some for themselves. What they didn’t know was that beginners and Blushers don’t mix well, because it is far too easy to mistake a Panthercap (Amanita pantherina) for a Blusher, and Panthercaps are dangerously poisonous. These two ladies were lucky enough to run into some people from Glamorgan Fungi Group, who, having noticed their bucket full of Blushers, asked them what they were doing. They offered to go through the collection, and check to see whether any Panthercaps had crept in by mistake. No Panthercaps turned up, but something far worse did. In amongst the Blushers were some Deathcaps. More than enough to kill not only these two Thai ladies, but most of their families as well, had they got home and made the wild mushroom soup they had planned. No experienced forager would have made this mistake either. (And I’m not even going to start on the state of this pile of mushrooms, ruined by dirt even without the lurking Deathcaps – what a pointless waste).

A third case emerged yesterday, reported in a local newspaper in Essex. Details are scarce, but what we do know is that an “experienced mushroom picker” who lives in Southend has eaten a Deathcap and has been “hospitalised for several days with severe illness”. It might be true that this was an experienced forager, but I simply don’t believe it. These stories get reported like this, both by the traditional media and on social media, by people who do not understand the risks associated with fungi foraging. Yes, it can be dangerous, but only if you are over-confident, foolish or complacent. “Experienced foragers” do not make these sorts of mistakes – only people who themselves do not know much about fungi make the claim that “even experienced foragers can easily make fatal mistakes”, and this includes both journalists and friends of victims.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides), deadly but does not really look like either The Blusher or a Panthercap, regardless of being related.

Foraging for fungi is perfectly safe provided you take the time to educate yourself about the risks. The two species of fungi involved in these incidents are very well known, and have been responsible for countless previous poisonings worldwide. For any particular edible species, we know what you are likely to confuse them with, and how to tell them apart. The people who end up poisoning themselves (and their friends and families) are nearly always either beginners who didn’t understand the risks, people who are foraging in foreign lands with unfamiliar fungi, or people who made a very stupid mistake that could easily have been avoided. The truth is that people who do take their time, make a bit of effort to learn about fungi and then take a reasonable amount of care, do not end up eating any poisonous wild fungi.

If you want to learn more about safely foraging for fungi then there’s two things you need to two. The first is to buy a good book (mine came out last year, and is the most comprehensive and up-to-date book on fungi foraging in northern Europe).  For details see the link at the top of this page, or reviews on Amazon . The second is to go on a forage (for food) or a foray (just about mushrooms) with somebody who really does know what they are doing, because this greatly accelerates the rate at which you can learn.

Below are some photos of the fungi involved in the recent incidents, and some other of the “usual suspects”  and I’ll leave you with one other comment posted on social media a couple of days ago:

“Has anyone ever eaten a poisonous mushroom? I know they all have varying effects but is the worse that can happen sickness and or diarrhoea? I’m more up for trying mushrooms but my other half is really adamant unless we can know 100% what it is which I find hard as a lot have poisonous look alikes”.

The Blusher (Amanita rubescens), edible but looks like a Panthercap.

Panthercap (Amanita pantherina), poisonous but looks like The Blusher.

Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), another well-known seriously toxic species, though rarely deadly.

Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum), just about as dangerous as a mushroom gets without actually being deadly.

Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) (photo by Andrea Kunze)

 

New Forest fungi foraging ban part II: why the ban is wrong.

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

09/09/2016

My previous blog post was openly critical of the Association of Foragers’ (AoF) response to the ban on picking fungi on Forestry Commission (FC) land in the New Forest. The AoF claimed that the FC’s ban was “unscientific”, but go on to make claims that are at least as unscientific as anything the FC has said. The reality is that the FC is not being unscientific, but that doesn’t mean the ban is justified. This post sets out the reasons why I believe it is a mistake.

First it needs to be pointed out that there are clear and important benefits to foraging. It gives people a reason to engage with the natural world, to learn about fungi, and to reconnect with the source of their food. A lot of people enjoy foraging very much. It also should be noted that the New Forest National Park is a publicly-owned resource, and that the Forestry Commission’s job is to manage it in the best interests of the general population of the UK.

The FC have said that the ban is “precautionary”, because “the jury is still out on whether or not foraging has a negative impact on future fungi populations.” The AoF has responded by citing two scientific studies that it says demonstrate this isn’t true. Unfortunately these studies do not demonstrate this. They only prove that picking fungi from a specific adult fungal mycelium does not have any long-term negative impact on future fruit body production from that mycelium. This should surprise nobody! The fruit bodies of fungi are not like the leaves of deciduous trees, from which nutrients can be recovered. Once they’ve been produced, the resources required for their production are irretrievably spent by the mycelium – they’re gone. It doesn’t matter what happens to those fruit bodies – whether they rot, are eaten by insects, or eaten by humans – there’s no reason it should make any difference to the mycelium that produced them. What it might make a difference to is the prospects of that mycelium reproducing. This is the real issue regarding foraging and future populations of fungi – not future harvests at the original location, but future harvests at other locations, after the original mycelium has expired. I am aware of no scientific studies that have attempted to answer this question, so we simply do not know the answer. Therefore the FC are correct – the scientific jury is still out, and there’s no prospect of firm scientific answers to these questions any time soon. Therefore we have to make decisions in the absence of clear scientific evidence.

The FC have also said that the ban is to protect populations of certain insects (small beetles and flies) that are obligatory feeders on mushrooms. The AoF has responded by claiming that foragers aren’t interested in picking the fungi that the insects eat, and demanding evidence that insect populations would suffer. No such evidence exists, but once again, this a precautionary ban, so the FC doesn’t actually need any evidence, just sufficient reason to believe insect populations would be negatively impacted. The AoF’s response is simply incorrect: many species of bolete and Agaricus that are highly prized by foragers are eaten by these insects. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to believe that the removal of fruit bodies by foragers negatively impacts the populations of these insects – the burden of proof is really on those who seek to deny something that makes such intuitive sense.

Finally the FC have cited the existence of “gangs of illegal commercial pickers”, and the AoF has questioned whether such gangs even exist. Once again, there is a lack of hard evidence upon which we might come to a firm conclusion. However, rather than questioning the existence of illegal commercial pickers, it might be more helpful to ask whether if they really do exist, given that they have already decided to do something illegal, there is any reason to believe that they will stop doing so because the FC have decided to ban currently-legal foraging for personal use. I doubt it very much. If those gangs exist then all this ban will do is ensure there are more fungi for them to illegally pick. So this is not a good justification of the ban.

There is no point in responding to a precautionary ban with demands for scientific evidence, and there’s certainly no point in responding by making scientifically questionable counter-claims. Instead, I think the way forwards is to examine the reasoning behind this precautionary ban. What, exactly, is it a precaution against?

There are cases where precautionary bans should be enacted. A perfect example was when the BSE crisis first hit the British beef industry. There was, at the time, no scientific evidence to suggest that BSE could jump the species barrier and infect humans, so the tory government at the time, under pressure from vested interests in the farming industry, declared that there was no reason to believe British beef to be dangerous. In this case a precautionary ban should have been implemented, but wasn’t. Human lives were at risk. And we eventually discovered that BSE can indeed jump the species barrier and several people died of a horrific degenerative brain disease as a result. But what is at risk in this case? The population levels of a few species of insect, and two or three species of fungi?

Let’s take the insects first. I’m all for biodiversity – biodiversity is a general measure of the health of an ecosystem. It is generally a good thing to have as much of it as possible. But not all species are equal. Some, such as apex predators like tigers and eagles, have a special status. Not only is their presence in the landscape something truly spectacular to behold, it is also a sign that the ecosystems they are the apex predators of are in a reasonably decent state of health. The loss of those apex predators tends to indicate serious problems further down the food chain, and can be a sign that the whole ecosystem is collapsing. Other species are important because they play a key role in regulating populations of other species, usually as predators or prey. Some of these species are ecological linchpins, and if they are in trouble then the whole of their ecosystem is in trouble because without them that ecosystem is thrown badly out of balance. But some species really aren’t that important. It is nice to have them around, but if they were to disappear then it wouldn’t make an enormous amount of difference to any other species, or to the ecosystem in general. So we have to ask, in what category are these beetles and flies that only feed on certain species of fungus? The Forestry Commission, and the conservationists who are the real driving force behind this ban, have not, to my knowledge, answered this question. They haven’t even been asked it. They have simply expected everybody to accept without question that the reduction of population levels of these insects would be sufficiently ecologicaly-disastrous to warrant a total ban on fungi foraging, as a precautionary measure, just in case. This looks like an absurd level of overkill. We have to make judgements all the time about conflicting interests – sometimes we have to accept something undesirable because it avoids something even less desirable or because it allows something really beneficial to take place. And in this case, the Forestry Commission has apparently decided that all of the benefits of foraging are less important than the population levels of a few species of insect – species that could disappear from the face of the Earth and nobody but a handful of entomologists would even notice. I could be wrong about this; maybe those insects are ecological linchpins. But if so, neither the FC nor the conservationists have seen fit to mention it, let alone provide any evidence to support the claim.

What about the fungi themselves? Again, instead of demanding evidence that even FC knows doesn’t exist or making unsupported claims that foraging helps spread fungi about, let’s assume that the concerns of the conservationists turn out to be justified: that foraging really does have a long-term negative impact on the ability of the fungi in question to reproduce. What are the ecological consequences this precautionary ban is protecting us against? Any human lives at risk? Any ecosystems likely to collapse? The answer: a reduction in the population levels of two or three common species of fungi. This might be a bit annoying for foragers – fewer chanterelles, hedgehog fungi and penny buns for them to pick. But who or what else might it effect? Nobody and nothing, as far as I can tell. The reduction of the number of mycelia and spores of these species would presumably make it easier for other species of fungi, of less or no interest to foragers but just as good for wildlife to eat, including rarer species that are usually outcompeted by the hedgehogs and chanterelles, to reproduce. In other words it would probably increase fungal biodiversity by selecting against common species (no, there’s no scientific evidence to support this, but it makes perfect sense). It is hard to see how it could reduce the overall populations of fungi (all species put together). We’d only expect that as a result of a loss of habitat, which is not the scenario under discussion. So again, what is the judgement that’s been taken here? Apparently the FC think that the reduction in population levels of two or three species of fungi that aren’t endangered and aren’t ecological linchpins is more important than all of the benefits of allowing foraging.

What is really going on here? The Forestry Commission has not made this decision out of the blue. It has been pressured into doing so by a small number of conservationists who have become increasingly alarmed at the ever-increasing popularity of fungi foraging. Those conservationists have long been trying to get foraging banned, and they have now managed to convince the Forestry Commission that foraging might be causing sufficient long-term ecological damage in the New Forest to prohibit it completely. Where is the justification for this precautionary ban? Where is the analysis of how the potential ecological problems that might occur compare to the loss of the positive benefits of allowing foraging that definitely will occur now that it has been banned? Who has decided which is most important, and on what basis have they taken that decision? Who are they accountable to? No such analysis has taken place. Instead, somebody at the Forestry Commission has decided, behind closed doors, for reasons that have not been adequately explained, to cave into these conservationists. If they have asked the questions they should have asked about why the ban was necessary, then they aren’t telling anybody.

This debate should not be about science that doesn’t exist. It should be about what takes priority in the absence of clear scientific data – the right of the general public to use a publicly-owned resource to engage in a thoroughly beneficial activity enjoyed by thousands of people, or the maintaining of population levels of a few species of not-very-interesting, ecologically-irrelevant insects and a handful of fungi species that aren’t remotely endangered. And the answer should be a no-brainer. Even if the conservationists are right about the insects and the fungi, they are still wrong about the ban. The Forestry Commission really does need to think again about this. The ban has been introduced for the wrong reasons. It has not happened because foraging poses any sort of serious ecological threat, but at the behest of a small number of very conservative conservationists who don’t like foragers and want to turn the clock back to the good old days when the British public was scared stiff of fungi. And unfortunately the Forestry Commission, which should be acting in the best interests of the whole population of the UK is instead doing the bidding of these reactionary conservationists.

Dark Penny Bun, Take Two

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715

25/09/2014

I have a confession to make. I had to remove my previous blog entry because it contained an error – and those can be serious in this line of business. However, there’s some lessons here. The first is that not all fungi foraging mistakes are equal – if you’re going to get something wrong then the difference between mistaking a delicacy for another delicacy and mistaking a poisonous species for a delicacy is also the difference between a tasty dinner and your last dinner. It was not good fortune that my mistake was the former rather than the latter, but the result of knowing that even if I got something in this region of fungal taxonomy wrong, I wasn’t going to end up being poisoned. It was a mistake nonetheless, and so this blog post will retrace the steps that led me astray.

I’ve long been aware of the existence of three mushrooms very similar to a penny bun (Boletus edulis, cep, porcino). All three are much rarer, at least in southern England, and all of them highly prized – at least as much as their more famous relative, and one case even more so. The three in question are the Summer Bolete (B. reticulatus), the Dark Penny Bun (or Dark Cep, B. aereus) and the Pine Bolete (B. pinophilus). As the years marched on and I continued to never find any of them, I started to wonder whether maybe I’d seen them many times and had been mistaking them for a Penny Bun. I mean…exactly how similar where they?

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

Then two things led to my first mistake. The Summer Bolete does not always fruit in the summer, and its name comes from the reticulations on its stem – a network of raised lines. I came across a couple of pictures on the internet claiming to be B. reticulatus, showing a clear, white network of lines on a mushroom that otherwise looked exactly like a bog-standard penny bun. “Ah”, I thought, “so I’ve been picking these up and just not realising what they were. Now I know what a Summer Bolete is.” Except I didn’t. My picture (left) is not of B. reticulatus. It’s just a penny bun with a particularly noticeable network of reticulations on its stem.

And when you’re working by a process of elimination – which is sometimes a legitimate strategy when identifying fungi – then one mistake can lead to another. When, two weeks ago, I found a mushroom with a light brown, suede-like cap, and white pores, I ended up concluding that it had to be B. aereus – it didn’t look dark enough, but then again some of the pictures I could find of that species had caps as light, especially when they were quite small. So I blogged about Dark Penny Buns.

Summer Bolete (Boletus reticulatus)

Summer Bolete (Boletus reticulatus)

Then a few days later I found lots more of them – outside a pub where the landlord had taken a dislike and dumped a load of earth on them, in a futile attempt to stop them popping up on his land. At this point, with more specimens as examples, it dawned on me what had happened. These couldn’t be B. aereus because they were the wrong colour. Dark Penny Buns have to be Dark. So they had to be B. reticulatus, and what I’d thought was that species were Penny Buns. The network on their stems is much finer, and brown rather white.

Dark Penny Bun, or Dark Cep (Boletus aereus)

Dark Penny Bun, or Dark Cep (Boletus aereus)

Then, in a twist so typical of mushroom foraging, something else turned up. Yesterday I visited a site where hedgehog fungi grow in great profusion every year, collecting for two foraging workshops in Northamptonshire. They were there as usual, but this time they had a friend – a solitary, dark-capped mushroom that otherwise looked remarkably like a penny bun. And by now you will have guessed where this story is going: this really was a dark penny bun. And it really was delicious.

As for the fourth member of this quartet – the Pine Bolete? That remains on the “to find” list, but the way this autumn is going, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns up next week.

27/11/2015: UPDATE

The fourth member of the quartet has turned up. Where? On the banner at the top of my main page, of course! I’ve been mistaking Pine Boletes for Penny Buns, it seems.