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It’s nearly mushroom season, and the argument between mycologists and foragers is in the news again, this time because mycologist Sara Cadbury has attacked the activities of John Wright and other “celebrity foragers” in the New Forest, as reported by the Daily Mail.
All these TV programmes about the ‘wild food’ craze and foraging in the forest merely serve to popularise the idea of mushroom picking. People now come from all over the country to pick mushrooms in the New Forest and that just shouldn’t be happening. There are more and more courses in mushroom picking being run and the hotels in the area are jumping on the bandwagon too. The Forestry Commission needs to be brought into line because they are giving out the wrong message. The forest suffers as a result of all the picking local people are fed up with it. Fungus is a central part to the web of life – nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates. The only answer is to take the same measures as Epping Forest does and ban the picking of mushrooms entirely. A blanket ban is the only way to ensure mushrooms are not picked for commercial purposes.
Here we go again.
It is quite clear that there is a cultural change going on in the UK. Having been a mycophobic culture since forever, we are becoming a mycophyllic culture.
And it does lead to an obvious question. There are many European countries which have been mycophyllic for generations – Italy, Poland, Russia etc… Every year in these countries, a significant proportion of the population descends on the forests and take whatever fungi they can find that are good to eat. And oddly enough, the fungi in those countries seem to be doing just fine. So the question is this: why do mycologists in the UK fear that something terrible is going to happen to British fungal populations because foraging has become popular, when nothing especially terrible has happened in Italy or Poland? Do they think our fungi are different in some way? Or that some other factor makes a decisive difference?
People don’t like change, especially conservative people (with a small “c”). And it is not that surprising that people who have been recording fungi for many years, and who not so long ago had those fungi pretty much to themselves because almost nobody foraged in the UK, don’t like this cultural change. However, trying to stop it happening is like trying to stop the tide coming in. It’s part of a much wider cultural trend towards re-learning lost skills/knowledge, reconnecting with the natural world and eating more natural and interesting food. You might argue that you can do these things without foraging for fungi, but that won’t make any difference to the people who are interested in learning to forage for fungi.
What is her actual argument?
Firstly she complains that “people are making money” and “the forest is being exploited.” Well, people were already thoroughly “exploiting” almost all of the woodland in Britain when the Romans invaded, and have been doing so ever since. This claim has nothing to do with conservation or ecology. Coppicers “exploit” woodland, and their activity is widely understood to increase biodiversity, so “exploitation” is not necessarily bad for ecology/conservation. It depends on exactly what is being done.
She also says that “people now come from all over the country to pick mushrooms in the New Forest and that just shouldn’t be happening.” She’s right. That shouldn’t be happening, and it is rather daft, because there’s plenty of woodland in other places. But it certainly isn’t an argument against fungi foraging in general, just that the New Forest is being inundated, rather pointlessly, by too many people from other parts of the country.
Then she says “The forest suffers as a result of all the picking, local people are fed up with it.”
“The forest suffers”? How does the forest suffer? She left that bit out.
“Local people are fed up with it” makes what is going on a bit clearer. If people were coming from all over the UK to a small area in my bit of Sussex then I’d be pretty fed up about it too.
The ecological argument offered is this:
“Fungus is a central part to the web of life – nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates.”
And the problem with this claim is that, as John Wright points out, picking fruiting bodies doesn’t actually harm the fungus. Even if you pick every single penny bun beneath an oak tree, the tree is not harmed in any way, and neither is the fungus. It’s ecologically no different to picking apples or blackberries. The only bit of the argument that actually works is the bit about the invertebrates. Yes, if you take all of the fungi in a particular area and if there are local populations of insects that are dependent on fungi to feed their grubs, then the population of those invertebrates will suffer. But I am not sure that a local decline in population of a few obscure species of beetle and fly which are either unthreatened or ecologically irrelevant warrants this level of outrage.