Increase in foraging is leading to a decline in some wild species of mushroom, warns fungus expert

Suffolk county fungus recorder Neil Mahler (right) studying fungi with colleague

Suffolk county fungus recorder Neil Mahler (right) studying fungi with colleague - Credit: Archant

County fungus recorder Neil Mahler says people should ‘admire’ wild fungi but not pick them.

Wood ear mushroom

Wood ear mushroom - Credit: Archant

Suffolk’s leading fungus expert has warned that the growing trend for foraging for wild mushrooms has led to a decline in some edible species in a number of the county’s best known natural areas.

The county fungus researcher Neil Mahler says people hunting for food in the wild are taking more than they need and advises that people should simply “admire” mushrooms they find in the countryside and not pick them.

“Popular areas that are regularly foraged, such as Dunwich Heath and Brandon Country Park, show a definite decline in certain sought after species and we should remember the fruiting bodies of fungi are an important food source for many animal species from slugs to deer,” said Mr Mahler.

“If people only took sufficient for their immediate needs - for one meal - that would be fine, but there are far more people foraging these days than there used to be and they take far more than they need - and most will be unidentified and thrown away. Dedicated foragers now buy driers to preserve the fungi but this encourages them to take everything they find.”

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Mr Mahler has been county fungus recorder for 11 years and his role involves surveying locations for fungi, identifying rare species and holding educational walks.

He says, as there are many types of cultivated fungi and organic mushrooms now available to buy, there is no need for foragers to “strip the woods of their autumnal beauty” and believes there should be tougher laws to protect wild fungi, as there are in some European countries.

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He continued: “There are still only four species of fungi fully protected by law in the UK. They are all rare to various degrees, but the bearded tooth fungus - called lions mane by foragers - is on the protected list because it is edible and very sought after by foragers and is now quite rare in the UK.

“Obviously, the powers that be, recognise that over collecting is threatening to make this fungus extinct in the UK, so it is time they applied the law to other rare fungi that happen to be edible.”

Blusher mushroom

Blusher mushroom - Credit: Archant

Mr Mahler added: “In the Netherlands, the government has banned foraging completely in some areas on the grounds fungi are an important food source for the animals.

“Even in Switzerland, where they did a 20-year study into the effects of foraging, they still had to introduce total bans in certain areas at certain times of the year, and they are now suffering from the effects of large gangs carrying out commercial picking.”

Mr Mahler says there is a lack of understanding about the vital role fungi play in ecosystem - “the planet just wouldn’t work without fungi” he said - and advises that people should try to identify what they have found, and “just admire them as they do plants and animals.”

But forager Matthew Rooney believes Mr Mahler is over-stating the impact of people who ‘pick for the pot’ on the local landscape.

Matthew Rooney

Matthew Rooney - Credit: Archant

He said: “Foraging only focuses on edible mushrooms and there are loads of other mushrooms out there that don’t get touched.

“When you forage you only pick the fruiting body, which are around for a day or so. They are full of good protein and sugars and yes, they are there to be eaten by animals but we are animals are well.

“Picking and carrying mushrooms through the forest also helps to spread the spores further afield”.

Mr Rooney, who lives near Colchester, runs foraging classes where, he says, he teaches people to pick sustainably and only take mushrooms they know can be eaten. He believes an important factor in the decline of some wild mushroom species is climate change and the way woodland and commons are managed.

He added: “Management work in the woods, such as coppicing, can change the microclimate of an area and mean that a certain variety of mushroom won’t appear for 15 years.

“For example, on the green at Great Bentley - one of the largest village greens in the country - it should be covered with different mushrooms, such as fairy rings or field blewits, but it has hardly produced a single mushroom this year because of the mowing regime. Mowing changes the microclimate, it reduces the humidity at ground levels and exposes it to more wind and sun.

“Rather than having a negative impact, foraging makes people become more in tune with what the landscape is doing. You are looking carefully at what plants and fungi are doing and understanding their natural cycles. Its gives you a broader view of nature.”

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