British Fungi Foraging and the Internet: Teething Pains of a New Culture

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cover_cropFirstly for anybody who doesn’t already know, my new book (Edible Mushrooms – A forager’s guide to the wild fungi of Britain, Ireland and Europe) came out last Thursday (see link at top of page). The customer reviews have already started rolling in on Amazon , if you’d like to know what some of the early buyers think of it. I’d like to thank everybody at Green Books for their hard work in the production of this book. I’m still selling signed copies for £20 (the RRP) including P&P, so email me if you’d like one.

This post is mainly about things I’ve encountered while promoting the book on the internet, some of which are rather worrying. I’m not a big fan of Facebook – I’m a bit old school and prefer forums, especially because of the ability to search for historical posts and follow complex discussions. But in order to get the word out about the book, I joined a number of facebook groups related to fungi and foraging. I am very familiar with the conflict between conservationists/mycologists and foragers that has sprung up in the wake of the pro-foraging cultural change we’ve seen in Britain in recent years. I’ve spent the last five years trying to find a balanced view in the middle of it, and as a result I’ve ended up making both friends and enemies on both sides. That dispute is far from being resolved, with the recent “ban” on personal picking in the New Forest being an example of what some people in mycology and conservation want to achieve of a wider scale: the prohibition of fungi foraging. In that case the “ban” turned out to be toothless, because it is legally unenforceable, but it was a statement of intent that must not be ignored.

What I was less aware of is the level of conflict and argument that exists within the foraging world, especially on the internet. This is also partly the result of the rapidly changing culture – not long ago there simply wasn’t any foraging community in the UK – but it is also partly directly the result of the existence of the internet, which would have been a game-changer anyway, even if the British had historically foraged for fungi.

The disputes I am talking about can be broken down into four main categories.

(1) Arguments about identification and use of hallucinogenic varieties

This of least interest in the context of this blog post, apart from where it co-incides with (4) below – people picking stuff that they are hoping might be hallucinogenic species, then asking people online to identify them later. The arguments regarding the legality and ethics of the use of hallucinogenic fungi are beyond the scope of this post.

(2) Glorification of overpicking

Some people seem to think the goal of fungi foraging is to pick as much as possible of prized edible species, and then post a picture online of their “haul”. This is routinely followed by arguments about why they picked so much. The response from the picker is inevitably “There were tons; I left loads” – something which, conveniently, nobody else can verify, and which might well be true in a few cases but probably isn’t in most. Why would I say that? Because for these people, the main purpose of going foraging has ceased to be finding food and become a competitive sport. It is all about the photo at the end, of their massive “haul”, and the bigger the better. The goal has become to have taken the largest amount and post the most impressive picture, in the hope of gain kudos from other foragers. This behaviour leads to a culture where over-picking in encouraged. Even in the cases where it is actually true that loads were left, the very fact that these pictures are being posted, and the pickers congratulated, just encourages other people to go out and pick as much as possible. It incentivises picking everything, just like commercial foraging does. And perhaps more importantly, it hands ammunition to those people who want to see foraging banned. I even saw one instance of a professional foraging teacher asking what was wrong with selling any excess. The answer is that unless the landowner’s permission was sought for commercial collection, and granted, selling it would be illegal.

This is an appeal to people in the online foraging community to stop doing this. Stop turning fungi foraging into a competitive sport – stop posing with pictures of your massive “haul”, stop boasting about how many kilos of bay boletes you picked and stop encouraging other people to behave in this way. These are the people who are going to get fungi foraging banned. And I also ask other people in the foraging community – the ones who don’t do this – to condemn it whereever and whenever you see it.

(3) People confidently identifying other’s people fungi, incorrectly

This one is also about earning kudos in the online foraging community. Lots of people want to play fungi expert, it seems. In this environment, being able to identify the fungi in other people’s photos earns you respect. Unfortunately, some people either over-estimate their abilities or are knowingly “winging it”. They don’t just say “I think that might be X.” They say “X!”, giving the impression to the person who posted the photo that somebody who knows what they are doing has been able to provide a firm identification of a fungus. The potential consequences of this sort of behaviour are all too obvious – it hinders people’s learning process and may well lead to people getting poisoned.

Please do not pretend you are certain what something is unless you really are certain. Sometimes, of course, you can be certain but still be wrong, in which case be prepared to be corrected without getting upset. Many of the people whose misidentifications get pointed out by other people take it rather badly, leading to flame wars. I came across one lady last week who had incorrectly identified a Slender Parasol (Macrolepiota mastoidea) for a true Parasol (M. procera). When I pointed out her mistake and asked her to be more careful in the future for the reasons given above, she took it very personally and spent most of the rest of that evening demanding to know what my qualifications are, refusing to accept that she’d identified the fungus wrongly and telling me that she’d been taught how to forage by her Sicilian family, that her boyfriend owned a 250 acre farm in Somerset and that her husband (apparently she had both) “had a PhD in biotech”. None of which changed the fact that she’d incorrectly told somebody that a Slender Parasol was a true Parasol. The next morning, after a moderator had deleted everything she’d posted after my initial post pointing out her mistake, she continued with more of the same. She eventually told me that she was going to report me to Facebook for harrassment. Oddly enough, I’ve not heard anything from Facebook on this subject.

(4) Picking and hoping

Why bother learning to identify fungi when you can just go out and pick everything you find and post a photo on the internet accompanied by the words “which ones I can eat?” or “what sort of fungi are these?”. Not “are any of these rare?” or “how do I learn to identify these?” This behaviour is lazy, anti-social and ecologically irresponsible. It gives foraging a bad name and is another practice that hands ammunition to those who want it banned. And, predictably, many of the people who’ve posted pictures of their unidentified “haul” tend to get rather upset when instead of being congratulated, they are asked to stop behaving in an unacceptable way, leading to more flame wars. Perhaps the worst example I have ever seen of this wasn’t on a facebook group, but on my own facebook page (Geoff’s Fungi and Foraging) a few years ago. Somebody posted a photo of a kitchen sink full of water, with a large amount of fungi bobbing around in it. The person said “My wife picked these this morning in the local woods. Which ones are edible?” I didn’t quite know where to start. Firstly I could see at least one poisonous Amanita in the sink, so the whole sinkful was potentially contaminated with amatoxins (Are they water soluble? Does anybody know?). Secondly it is impossible to identify most fungi when they are bobbing around in a sink of water. Thirdly, most fungi absorb water like sponges and you shouldn’t even wash them if it can possibly be avoided, let alone drown them. And fourthly this was “pick and hope” on a grand scale, and the person responsible may well have been picking rare stuff. When I pointed all this out, the person who’d posted it got very angry, because I was “trying to make me and my wife look stupid in public.”

In summary

The British fungi foraging community needs, at this point, to be aware that we have arrived at something of a cultural crossroads. I believe it is now very likely, and possibly inevitable, that there is going to be a change in the law governing foraging. Right now we still have a chance to self-regulate within the community. We have a chance to influence the direction this culture develops in, to minimise some of the worst practices described above. If we do not then I fear that the result may well be that the those people who want to see fungi foraging prohibited may yet get exactly what they want. It is far from impossible. There are places in Continental Europe where a total ban is in place, and it could happen here.

14 thoughts on “British Fungi Foraging and the Internet: Teething Pains of a New Culture

  1. Antje Molton

    Why is it that some people have to turn everything that could be just an interesting and enriching pastime into something unpleasant and destructive? Trophy hunting for mushrooms, what ever next? I agree fully with your statements in the article. Nothing wrong in gathering for a meal, but it hurts me every time I see people who have ‘grazed’ or even worth, have kicked these wonders of nature over. I tend to collect fungi by taking photos these days, and I carry a little mirror,which enables me to take images of the underside of the mushrooms without having to break them.
    I well remember the little spat on facebook, she really did not know when to stop. Painful.
    Thank you for your excellent book. It has already come in useful on two occasions.

  2. Grethe Fauland

    This year I have had so manny moments where I have had just these thorths about peoples behavier. And felt like if they was playing Russian roulete whith there lifes . Actualy also over the answers they got.Just as you say people pretenting to be experts and you actualy know they are not.

    1. Geoff Dann Post author

      Thankyou for your comment, Grethe. Unfortunately when it comes to online identifications, some people are playing russian roulette with other people’s lives. How is a complete beginner supposed to be able to tell who is giving them safe advice, and who isn’t?

  3. Mark Reeves

    Well said, Geoff. I was lucky enough to learn about foraging and identification 20 years ago from a friend who was an expert. Having recently discovered online funghi forums and facebook pages, I am horrified by the destructive behaviours of people who ought to know better. Why ought they know better? Because nobody needs to be taught that mass harvesting of everything in sight is unsustainable – it should be common sense to anyone who stops to think about it for more than a millisecond. We’ve done it to the oceans, let’s not do it to the forests too.

  4. Jeremy Hunter

    Saw this article linked in a Facebook fungi ID group, from which you had either left or been removed, and thought I’d give it a read.

    It’s sad to see it happening, I hope I haven’t, in my “noobishness”, done these things, but I try and be considerate, like not picking where I only see one specimen in the area (even though some might have come and gone, I wouldn’t want to take a risk) or at least TRY and look in my book first and I don’t pick to ID unless I wish to take a spore print. I didn’t know about not washing if possible however, I’ll remember that for future.

    Social media platforms like Facebook are damaging, I can see that, because ideas spread faster than the education behind them. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and despite all the information at our fingertips, many don’t seem to check at all. I’ll be following this blog and, when I can afford to, invest in a copy of your book.

    As someone who is quite new to fungal forays, aside from what is here do you have other blog entries on ethical foraging? I know a lot of it probably seems like common sense to you, but you can’t predict what you don’t know so I’d like to know what to consider when foraging to ensure I’m doing the world a favour.

    1. Geoff Dann Post author

      Hi Jeremy

      Thanks for your comment. There have been several posts on this blog relevant to this topic in the last couple of months but apart from these the only things I have written on this topic are in my new book.

      Taken from the book:

      Suggested code of conduct for mushroom pickers

      Leave at least half the fruiting bodies in any one location. Mushroom foraging is not supposed to be a competitive sport where the winner is the person who collects the most. Take what you need; don’t take everything.

      Don’t pick singletons unless the species is very common.

      Don’t pick mature fruit bodies that are past their best for eating – they’re busy producing millions of spores.

      Try to minimise trampling.

      Refrain from taking anything rare apart from in specific circumstances such as that species being locally very abundant and/or it being right at the end of the autumn with a hard frost on the way.

      Don’t “pick and hope”. You should avoid picking more than a couple of specimens of a fungus you can’t identify. Ideally, don’t pick any at all and instead just take a photo of the fungus in-situ, and use that to get it identified online. If a shot of the underside is required, you can sometimes slip a mirror underneath to avoid disturbing a mushroom. If this isn’t possible and if there are plenty then no harm is done by taking one for a closer examination back home. Whatever you do, don’t go out and pick all the fungi you can find and then post a photograph on the internet and expect somebody to tell you which ones you can eat!

      Avoid moving dead wood around because it disturbs other wildlife.

      Obey the law, including local laws and bye-laws.

      Follow the country code. Close gates, don’t litter, don’t disturb livestock, and so on.


  5. Roger Morris

    Some very useful contributions to the debate about foraging, but also to the general development of biological recording. The digital camera has utterly changed the face of species identification and has generated both opportunities and risks.

    If I read the runes correctly, there is growing pressure for legislation to restrict foraging and that irresponsible behaviour is a contributory factor. That would be a terrible shame, but there are good grounds for concern; not just about fungus dispersal, but also for the remarkable assemblage of Diptera, Coleoptera and associated parasitic Hymenoptera that depend upon fungal fruiting bodies. We really need to develop more people with the requisite skills to start to piece together this complicated web.

    What starts to get me very worried, however, is the danger of people providing erroneous identifications that lead to poisonings and then possibly legal action against the person who posted the ID. This emphasises the importance of using extreme caution when providing IDs. I know enough about fungi to know that I know too little to safely eat more than a handful of species – it limits my options but is the best course.

    1. Geoff Dann Post author

      Hi Roger

      Thanks for your reply. And yes you are reading the runes correctly, unfortunately. And I suspect it is only a matter of time before an incorrect internet ID leads to somebody getting poisoned. Probably won’t involve a Deathcap, but something like Funeral Bell being mistaken for Honey Fungus.


  6. Paul Sands

    Good post Geoff. We like to think of ourselves as responsible foragers but there were still a few points that made me self reflect (I’ve probably been a bit of a trampler in my time…). Thinking about ways to avoid some draconian total ban in the future, I’ve been wondering if there should be some kind of license system. I know there already is one for commercial picking, but I mean for non-commercial picking too – it could be voluntary, at least at first, but require some kind of simple online test (prove you know the most common poisonous species etc) as well as adherence to a “code” like the one you describe above. Might encourage good behaviour amongst more of the community, and if it ever did come to the crunch, represent a category of foragers that the powers that be might exempt from a total ban. I’m sure it is not a new idea – what do you think?

    1. Geoff Dann Post author

      Hi Paul

      I think the simplest system to implement in order to avoid a total ban would be a daily limit per person. This is fairly straightforward to enforce (takes work, but is not complicated), and it would deal immediately and totally with the two worst problems: commercial picking and competitive personal picking (people picking as much as possible and then boasting about it, or posting pictures of their “haul”). Commercial operations aren’t worth it if they are limited to 2kg a day, and it kills the competitive thing stone dead, because anybody boasting about picking more than 2kg, or posting a picture of more than 2kg, would be providing evidence of a crime.



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