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The Foraging Debate

(from the Autumn 2012 issue)

In the summer issue of the Forayer, we published a short article questioning whether the boast of ‘collecting a sackful’ of edible fungi from a London park was setting a good example to others. The article was prompted after hearing of a posting on an internet forum, which through a confusion of similar names was wrongly linked to the London Fungus Group. To dispose of any potential misunderstanding, the comments came from a Yahoo internet group, calling itself the ‘londonfungi’. The group is apparently unrelated to the London Fungus group.

The article prompted two separate responses from the organiser of ‘londonfungi’, Keir Mottram. The first, addressed to our ABFG Forum manager, described the Forayer article as a “scurrilous, libellous, innuendo-laden piece of inaccurate, factually incorrect trash.” The second message, addressed to the Forayer editor, alleged: “You have made errors of fact and factual omission such that the story presented in The Forayer is materially inaccurate and most definitely scurrilous in the sense of making or spreading scandalous claims about someone or something with the intention of damaging their reputation . . . . . . relying on errors of fact and factual omission to make its case and damage the reputation of innocent parties..”

We should therefore correct any erroneous impression given in the original Forayer article, that the collection of a sackful of fungi on the part of one of the ‘londonfungi’ members, identified as ‘Mario’, to be distributed to other members, had any connection with the London Fungus Group. We should also apologise to the London Fungus Group, because although it was correctly stated in the article that the Group had been barred from the Association, it was not responsible for this incident. In other respects the Forayer article appears to have been accurate and reasonable.

It brings into sharp focus the debate about foraging on anything other than the very small scale of ‘taking one or two home for tea’.

The issue, as the ‘londonfungi’ foraging exercise exemplifies, is not limited to commercial collecting of woodland and field fungi for resale. Another member of ‘londonfungi’ has commented in a separate email, that members of such groups make money from what are described as ‘fungal forays’, and many such commercial ventures involve targeting edible species. This was ably demonstrated by the exposure of incidents involving ‘River Cottage’ operations in a National Trust-owned SSSI on the Devon and Dorset borders a few years ago.

Recently a fairly belt-and-braces exercise was run on the analytical machinery of CATE to see if any detectable effect might be resulting from the burgeoning, and frequently media-led exploitation of wild mushrooms through foraging.

The changing fortunes over the last two decades of three fairly common non-edible species, Hypholoma fasciculare, Trametes versicolor and Russula atropurpurea, were compared and contrasted with those of three iconic edible species, Calocybe gambosa, Boletus edulis and Calvatia gigantea.I

n the decade between 2000 and 2010 overall recording of fungi increased substantially over that of the previous decade - 1990 to 2000, so the changing level of recording of the common non-edible species may perhaps be viewed as a form of simple base line measure. It amounted to a 30% increase from one decade to the next.

When the same analytical evaluation was applied to the records of the edible species, a marked contrast was noted, since it amounted to no more than a 5% increase. The discrepancy was sufficiently marked that it probably should not be ignored. At face value it suggests that, in real terms, popular edible species may be being adversely affected by some or other factor, and the most obvious is increasing level of foraging. There may, of course, be other elements involved, but we tried to select sufficiently ubiquitous species that one group was unlikely to be affected more than the other by changes in land use or agricultural practices.

Edward Wells, in his submissions concerning the forthcoming review of the Wildlife and Countryside Act with which the Association is involved, indicates that the best answer from our point of view would undoubtedly be a birds-style position wherein all species of fungi are presumed protected unless specifically excepted. There is, Edward also points out, a good argument for saying that as we know so little about their status it is irresponsible not to protect them while we find out. Parliament, however, is unlikely to wear that, particularly when the growing ‘food for free’ and commercial restaurant lobby is ready to raise a challenge.

Edward makes the succinct comment that whatever we get out of the current review is going to be insufficient and unenforceable, but perhaps we have to begin somewhere.

So where do we start? The purists will not favour suggestions that fungi should be lumped, within the remit of the Act, with flowers, but would doing so, presenting a united front with organisations like Plantlife, give the fungus kingdom a better chance of protection? As Stuart Skeates has observed: ‘Currently the whole fungal kingdom is not mentioned, so should all fungi be included akin to flowers, birds etc and protected. Then should some be allowed for collection under licence?'

Foraging for fungi on any kind of scale beyond popping two or three in the basket to take home is arguably detrimental and outmoded. Fifty years ago, we went through a similar debate over the picking of wild flowers, and that practice was terminated, with good reasons, not just those of conservation, but of aesthetics and social responsibility.

It seems wishful thinking that we will see any substantive change in the law, at least for the current review. One basic reason lies in that until we clear up the fragmented state of UK fungal data management we cannot provide any comprehensive statistical analyses.

So if we can’t engineer a change in the law, can we start to influence public attitudes? Two or three years ago, the Association attempted ineffectively to draw together a united front of organisations that would lobby the media and set out to influence TV, radio, daily newspapers, periodicals against the seasonal barrage of programmes and articles extolling the delights of ‘fungus food for free’.

The argument that if we want to encourage newcomers into field mycology and conservation we first may need to dangle the foraging carrot in front of them is not supported by any clear evidence, and probably doesn’t wash. Interest in looking after our bird population was hardly assisted by encouraging youngsters to go and rob nests of eggs, nor was protecting wildflower meadows boosted by giving people the nod to go and pick wild orchids and daffodils in order to gain an understanding of their fragile position in the ecosystem.

It takes a certain amount of discipline and even fortitude to say ‘no’ to a TV production company wanting to make yet another foodie programme with expert advice from a field mycologist and a passing word about ‘never eating them unless you are sure.’ But is it not time that we stopped cooperating with media articles and features that only care to trumpet the questionable gastronomic value of fungi. Should we be offering a united ‘front’ to persuade them to focus on other rather more important aspects of fungi such as their beauty, uniqueness in the ecosystem, and essential role in the biodiversity web?

In the absence of any likelihood of a statute that protects fungi in the same way as birds, and which would, even if fungi did ever find their way onto the statute books, be almost impossible to enforce, there are limited options. One view is that fungi are sufficiently resistant and have been around for long enough, that we don’t need to do anything. But can we afford to take that risk, given as Edward Wells reminds us, that we know so little about them and their role in the environment, their involvement with other plants and animals? Might the UK mycota be better served by mounting a concerted PR exercise in their favour?


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