If you go down to the woods today … don’t come back with mushrooms
On a bright November morning in Epping forest, the fading contours of late mushrooms are poking through rotting leaves and hanging from tree stumps.
The forest, on the edge of London, boasts more than 1,600 fungi species across 2,428 hectares (6,000 acres). It is always tempting for illegal commercial foragers, and this year is no exception.
While picking wild mushrooms for personal use is acceptable and permitted in most parts of the country, fungi foraging in the protected woodland is not. Commercial operations are illegal.
But for those who want to make make some quick money and know what to look for, the riches of mushroom season often prove irresistible. The City of London Corporation, which manages the area, has warned that Epping Forest’s biodiversity is threatened by foraging gangs that harvest huge numbers of fungi with the aim of selling them on.
“I urge our visitors to leave the fungi how they find them – untouched,” says Graeme Doshi-Smith, chairman of the corporation’s Epping Forest and Commons Committee. “Our job is to protect this ancient woodland for everyone to enjoy. Hoovering up fungi on a large scale is ecologically damaging and is simply unsustainable.”
Earlier this month, park officials posed with confiscated hauls weighing up to 49kg. They warned that commercial pickers do great damage to the protected ancient woodland due to the quantities they take, depriving insects and other animals of food, threatening rare species and risking the health of ancient trees in the forest.
As the desire for fresh and wild ingredients has grown in Britain, so too have concerns about nationwide fungi raiders. In October 2018, the Royal Parks issued a warning about mushroom and chestnut “pilfering” in Richmond Park and other areas they manage. The New Forest, a vital site for more than 2,700 species of fungi, including some protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, is frequently targeted, as are National Trust properties across the country.
“They just take everything,” says Mario Prati, the exasperated founder of the Borough market truffle importer Tartufaia, as he reflects on the commercial fungi foragers accused of plundering Epping Forest and selling their bounties to the capital’s markets and restaurants.
As well as its stocks of truffles, seasonal wild mushrooms are an important part of the Italian’s offerings. But though many wild mushrooms are native to the UK – about 12,000 varieties swellto impossible shapes and sizes – the mushrooms at Tartufaia are overwhelmingly sourced from Europe, all checked by an ecologist before they go on sale. Prati, a former chef, does not purchase from the commercial foragers who occasionally try their luck at the market with overladen plastic bags.
“We wouldn’t take it,” says another market trader when asked about illegal commercial foragers trying to sell produce. “I’ve worked in restaurants before where people would. It’s the same with wild garlic as well.”
The UK has an uncertain relationship with wild mushrooms, says Prati. “In Britain, people are really scared about picking mushrooms by themselves. There isn’t that much knowledge. From what I gather, it’s a knowledge that used to be here. Mushrooms like ceps, chanterelles, girolles – they’re all mushrooms that are native from here, but somewhere along the way the knowledge has been lost.”
The porcini, pieds de mouton and girolles piled high at the flagship market are imported from countries where fungi foraging is an established part of life. They are typically from areas of Bulgaria, Poland, Russia and Croatia with much more woodland.
Prati’s friend Claudio Bincoletto, a former chef turned ecologist, says illegal commercial foragers in the UK do not know how to pick sustainably.
“People are taking advantage of the lack of rangers to police the natural environment. I’ll give you an example. I went to Sicily and picked mushrooms on Mount Etna. I did 12 hours’ training, six in the classroom, six outside, I paid €12.50 (£10.70) a day. If I’m caught with more than 3kg or undersized species or rare species, I get a €500 fine,” says Bincoletto, who used to advise the restaurateur Antonio Carluccio on wild produce.
“In Italy, we have 35% of forested area. In England it’s less that 5%. If we have 2 million foragers out of 10 million Londoners, do you think many fungi that are taken easily will remain? We as humans are the cause of extinction of most species through eating them. If a wild boar eats a mushroom, he’s going to deposit the spores in the right environment. If we humans eat a mushroom, we eat it cooked so there is no spreading of a new generation.”
Foraging experts tend to agree with Bincoletto’s analysis but dispute the scale of commercial wild fungi picking in the UK, insisting foraging for personal use is a very different operation. Fred Gillam, aka Fred the Forager, runs courses through his company the Wild Side of Life in south-west England.
“Taking too many mushrooms will harm the ecology of the forest as a whole, removing food sources for many other creatures,” he says.
“When we forage, we must remember to act like true foragers … the hunter-gatherers that were our ancestors until very recent times in mankind’s evolution. Nomadic hunter-gatherers take a little from here … a little from there … they do not take too much of any one species because they have fabulously diverse diets and know how to use many species as food and how to use every part of a plant.”
Another foraging expert, John Rensten of Forage London, says: “The main threat to mushrooms and forest ecosystems is loss of habitat. It’s not people foraging. It really isn’t. It’s a real cottage industry. Tesco buy their chanterelles from Russia for £6 per kilo. It takes a while to pick a kilo of chanterelles.”
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