In the early weeks of September, the first autumn mushroom boom hit. This was after a number of stormy downpours finally gave up some of the long-held rain to the land below, where us humans are most of the time.
I visited a local Sussex woodland in the second week of the month and was astonished by the change the rain had brought about. I have never seen so many blusher mushrooms (Amanita), which were honestly as common as muck, as the English saying goes. It’s also the start of the Russula season, with the first explosion of the brittle-gilled, uniformly white mushrooms. They are spectacularly beautiful to look at before the squirrels, deer, or slugs get to them, as they should.
I was on my way out of the woodland when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a perfect mushroom. It was perfect in appearance and is thought of as perfect for its culinary quality. At the edge of the shady path, under the branches of a young holly tree, was a cep (Boletus edulis).
Recently I’ve read a book about mushrooms and foraging that really got me thinking. It challenged my perceptions of whether we have it wrong about mushroom foraging in this country in terms of tone, and whether everything I thought I knew about what a woodland’s state would mean for its fungi.
More on that in a bit. You may have guessed that I picked this mushroom, took it home and ate it. I lived to tell the tale and it was indeed very tasty.
In recent weeks there have been Instagram posts showcasing hundreds of ceps in France and Russia and it’s made me realise something. One of the best times to pick edible mushrooms is in August and September before leaf fall and when there is still drier weather to be had. Wet weather also allows detritivores like slugs to feast on mushrooms.
Ceps in particular seem to be more likely to be free of decay and of insect encroachment into the stipe in drier months, which forms the core of the mushroom’s edibility.
For the past ten years I have remained fairly sniffy about mushroom foraging and only really ever eat wild mushrooms as a one off to see what they’re like. Part of this comes from working as a woodland warden for 6 years in an ecologically sensitive but hugely popular nature reserve. In my view and experience, I still don’t think foraging is sustainable in small city woodlands where the impact of footfall can degrade a habitat’s viability. There is also the fundamental fact that access to certain places has its controls, which are legal requirements in some cases. It’s also a sad reflection of the state of the English landscape which is said to be one of the most nature-depleted in the world.
Reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing made me appreciate just how nature-depleted we are in the UK, and how this is a cultural as well as ecological issue. I’ve written before about mushrooms in the Slavic world. Mushrooms seem like such a rare thing now that their picking is treated in numerous places as an offence, and this still with no solid evidence that picking mushrooms reduces an ecosystem’s viability or biodiversity. It does seem to come down more to commercial ‘theft’ than anything else, which you can understand if ‘organised’ groups are technically asset-stripping public lands. Mushrooms like ceps have a market value, something Tsing covers in greater detail.
As mentioned earlier, in small urban woodlands I think large-scale foraging could be harmful in that it can introduce lots of feet to healthy areas of woodland soil and seal it up, blocking the vital movements of gases like oxygen and CO2, fungal and invertebrate life, resulting in tree death. Soil is, after all, a living thing. It’s another reminder that woodlands with high visitor numbers do need to be managed for their long-term health.
But disturbance of a different variety may not be so bad. It may even help to promote mushroom dispersal. Tsing’s book shows that disturbed landscapes seem somehow ‘better’ for matsutake in America, with landscapes damaged to a degree by industry actually being reawakened to different communities of fungal life. We are of course talking about wooded landscapes of much greater scale than most that are found in the UK. That’s a key element to consider.
Two years ago I visited Bradfield Woods, a managed coppice-with-standards woodland in Suffolk that also happens to be a National Nature Reserve. It was absolutely chock-full with boletes and many other species of fungi, including stinkhorns! Bradfield Woods is coppiced regularly for its hazel wood and its mature oaks are felled for timber (hazel = coppice, oak = standards). It was one of the most fungally-rich woodlands I have ever visited in central or southern England, again this was early September.
The management by the Wildlife Trust at Bradfield Woods is sensitive and sustainable, unlike most plantations where an entire woodland is effectively created from scratch (or from an ancient woodland, similar to how rainforest turns over to palm oil monoculture) and managed aggressively with large machinery that damages the topsoil. Then again, Bradfield Woods is not needing to produce toilet paper and other goodies for 60million people. It’s important to remember that that’s why plantations are managed as they are, for products we all depend on in our daily lives. This is probably an issue of globalisation.
The Mushroom at the End of the World has a lot to say about globalisation, focusing on the matsutske mushroom, one of the most economically important species in the world. Tsing covers the (human) immigrant communities in Oregan, USA and how their livelihoods depend on picking. It reminded me that the anti-foraging arguments in a lot of the UK media are along xenophobic lines, which Tsing does cover in regard to white supremacy in the United States. One English video lingers in my mind, of East Asian women picking mushrooms in a London park and being accosted by a local volunteer who is also filming them. Without pretending to be an expert or to define an entire region of diverse peoples, picking mushrooms appears to be a perfectly normal activity in East Asian countries.
There is also the interchangeability of the phrases ‘gang of foragers’ with ‘gangs of foreigners’, which I very embarrasingly said by accident in challenging the very concept at a guided walk once. This kind of language is far more easily accessed in certain British newspapers, which are hostile to immigration and refugees more generally and seek material to boost their propaganda. As you may have seen, a lot of people continue to express racist or xenophobic views in 2022, and sometimes people don’t realise how those ideas can surface in the most unlikely of places – a love of the nature deemed to be ‘ours’ and under ‘our protection’. These are issues and messages here that need to be considered carefully.
Perhaps the fears about foraging harm wildlife because our disconnection from these places has contributed to ecological decline. Perhaps it’s also that we need to accept our failure of stewardship – have we done enough to champion the positive use of our woods and their wildlife or have we not broached the topic meaningfully enough out of fear?
The last few days has shown that UK conservation charities have had enough of the Government’s total failure to secure environmental protections, at a time when access to nature and a rich ecological environment is crucial to societal wellbeing.
If sustainable foraging can allow people to connect more deeply with suitable green spaces, and to understand their ecology and improve their management, surely that has to be a good thing?
Thanks for reading.
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