The beautiful complexity of nature supports a wondrous diversity of life. In spring wildflowers, providing pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies and moths. In summer these insects feed female bats, allowing them to provide milk for their young. Autumn is a time for nuts and berries as dormice fatten themselves to survive hibernation. Even in winter fallen leaves and deadwood are being decomposed by industrious fungi, recycling nutrients back into the system.
Humans too have used nature’s bounties for millions of years. As the convenience of shops increasingly replaced the need to find or grow our own food, many of us lost the art of foraging. But, spurred by media programmes and articles, the interest in wild food foraging has been reinvigorated – with some sadly worrying consequences.
As we have removed and fragmented huge areas of the UK’s natural habitats, many species are struggling to survive. It is important never to take too much from nature and leave enough for our wildlife to eat, they cannot just pop to the local shop or restaurant when times are hard. There also needs to be seeds and spores that grow into the next generation.
Fungal experts are growing ever more concerned at the quantities of mushrooms being foraged for personal and commercial use. These fruiting bodies of the organism produce spores that grow into new individuals. If too many spores are prevented from germinating there are fears for the future of many species, through reduction of individuals and the genetic diversity that could help them cope with challenges such as climate change.
Fungi are thought to be in decline. Some are vulnerable to air pollution, especially high nitrate deposition on the soil, such as ammonia from intensive livestock farming or fertiliser use. Others are suffering from the destruction of their habitats in the name of economic ‘progress’. More recently, an unprecedented increase in foragers on some sites has set alarm bells ringing.
Some types of fungi are highly sought after by the top restaurants, especially in London. Some are even exported to other parts of Europe. ‘Wild’ fungi and local collection may sound very attractive but at what environmental cost?
People have been reported trading large quantities of mushrooms in car parks for sale to restaurants. But they may not just negatively affect those edible varieties they seek. Many are apparently picking everything, regardless of species, then thoughtlessly discarding those they do not want, again sometimes in the car park. Picking the older ones, that may have dropped their spores, and those just poking through the ground, those that will never have chance to spread their life giving spores. Collectors are also said to be damaging sensitive habitats through thoughtless trampling.
Among others, Surrey Wildlife Trust has now banned fungi picking on their reserves. In the past the Trust may have turned a blind eye to the occasional visitor’s foray for ceps for soup or wild mushrooms on toast, but they have become increasingly aware of the commercial levels of collection on their precious sites. As most of their reserves are designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest of national value for their wildlife, and fungi are an important part of the ecosystem, they have little choice but to implement a ban or they too may be vulnerable to prosecution.
Fungal fruit bodies can produce millions of spores so you might think picking is not going to harm the species. However, production of the fruit body requires huge energy resources and we should not be complacent, especially in the case of unusual or rare species, as it is unlikely evolution has allowed them the luxury of providing surplus for no good reason. Furthermore, climate change has changed fungal fruiting patterns and, as fungi are influenced by droughts, they are likely to produce far fewer fruit bodies in dry years in the South East. Fruit bodies are also important for other species to feed on in autumn as they prepare for hibernation or the long winter.
Fungal fruit bodies are also remarkably beautiful and charismatic. It seems a shame that they should be removed, depriving visitors the enjoyment of experiencing these wonders of nature. If you are out and about this autumn apply the precautionary principle; only collect from plentiful populations and those you plan to eat, take ‘button’ mushrooms that have opened (so are likely to have dropped their spores), do not collect rare species, and take no more than you need for your personal consumption as outlined in the British Mycological Society’s Mushroom Pickers Code. Or just enjoy them in their natural habitat and take home merely memories.
Jill Butler, Ancient Tree Adviser, & Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser