‘Everything that can be eaten is being picked,’ said Sara Cadbury, a member of the Hampshire Fungus Recording Group. Photograph: Alamy
Fungus specialist blames TV chefs for growth of foraging courses that exploit ancient woodland for commercial gain.
The New Forest is being stripped of mushrooms as wild food foraging gains popularity, in part because of TV foodies and celebrity chefs, an expert warned on Friday.
People are encouraged to "pick anything they can eat" in the Hampshire national park as the popularity of foraging courses soars and local hotels jump on the bandwagon, said mushroom specialist and British Mycological Society member Sara Cadbury.
Cadbury, a founder member of the Hampshire Fungus Recording Group which documents rare species in the forest, said the Forestry Commission, as land managers of the park, must now impose a ban on all mushroom picking in line with a similar ban in Epping Forest.
Mushroom picking for commercial gain is illegal, but the general public are allowed a total of 1.5kg of mushrooms per person, per day. Cadbury, a farmer from Brockenhurst in the New Forest , said those running paid-for foraging courses, which cost up to "£75 per place, are exploiting ancient woodland for their own commercial gain.
Among those in her firing line are John Wright, the right-hand man to the River Cottage TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Garry Eveleigh, who taught the actor Caroline Quentin how to forage in the park as part of a TV series on national parks
Wright dismissed Cadbury's claims, saying foragers on his courses treated the forest with the utmost respect and within the law.
Cadbury added that numerous hotels were now running such courses. "Everything that can be eaten is being picked. They are exploiting the forest and earning a lot of money from doing it. The law states it is acceptable to pick 1.5kg per person, per day, but it is a grey area " if everyone on these foraging courses picks that, it amounts to a lot of mushrooms.
"It's not the people on the courses doing the picking that are to blame, it's TV chefs and such like that have really set the whole thing alight. All these programmes about the "wild food' craze and foraging in the forest merely serve to popularise the idea of mushroom picking.
"Fungus is a central part to the web of life " nearly all plants and trees rely on them for their growth, as do many invertebrates."
Wright, who has studied fungi for almost 50 years, said: "On my forays I take two baskets between the whole group " edible and just interesting. I never pick anything that is rare." He always obtains permission from the landowner or agent beforehand, he said.
He added: "The fungus itself is almost invariably a very long-lived perennial organism that lives below ground. No one ever said you could damage apple trees or apple tree populations by picking apples.
"A blanket ban on picking mushrooms would be a tragedy."
Besides its national park status, the New Forest is also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA) and has many important European Ramsar sites within it. The New Forest has the highest protection in place for all flora and fauna, but in the 1980s fungi were declassified and put into a kingdom of their own, leaving them vulnerable without the same protection.
In recent years, claims have been made of commercial pickers travelling from outside the areas with the express purpose of cashing in on the restaurant trend for wild food.
A spokesman for the Forestry Commission said: "We do control and permit events in the New Forest and will direct organised groups to less sensitive sites and discourage them from cutting or picking fungi. By promoting the Fungi Pickers' Code of Conduct we want everyone to have a sensible approach to collecting fungi and only for personal use.
"We are very aware of the concerns regarding the impacts of unauthorised commercial picking and are working to develop a more robust approach to this in the New Forest, which must be practical and enforceable."