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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.