Guest blog – Big Brother FC says No! by Peter Marren

marren

 

 

Peter Marren has contributed Guest Blogs here before (NHM threatens wildlife (garden), 27 October 2015Where green objectives clash, 26 January 2015; Ashes to ashes, 7 November 2012; Wildlife NGOs, 7 October 2011) and his excellent books Where the Wild Thyme Blew and Rainbow Dust – three centuries of delight in British butterflies were reviewed here a while back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Forestry Commission, which looks after the New Forest on behalf of the Crown, has banned mushroom picking. From now on, not a single fungus can be picked without a license, irrespective of whether you want to eat it, or identify it, or just get a better look at it (though it seems you can kick one over with impunity). This last twist of the screw follows a sequence of impositions on the would-be gatherer. First there was a code which restricted picking to 1.5 kilograms. Then commercial picking was banned outright. Then all picking was banned from parts of the Forest supposedly in the interests of ‘research’. And now we have reached the end game: a total ban.

So what? Why should anyone care if a few people are no longer able to pick mushies for their breakfast, or make sums of money from flogging them to foodie restaurants? Personally I don’t regularly pick mushrooms from the Forest and am not disadvantaged by the FC’s ban, so why does it bother me? I’ll try to explain why.

Foraging for food is fun. Whether we gather berries from the hedgerow, or aromatic weeds for the pot, or fresh mushrooms with the dew still on their caps, there is something about foraging that makes us happy. Perhaps it is simply a matter of being close to nature. Possibly it involves some ancient instinct from the days when we were hunter-gatherers. It is a bit like gardening. It brings you into contact with the soil, with sunshine and vegetation, and satisfies your soul in ways that are not easy to put into words. It is also healthy and educational. Foraging has become more popular in recent years. The newly formed Association of Foragers now has 85 members, most of whom are teachers, all of whom are knowledgeable about fungi and the natural world. They in turn take groups into the wilder parts of Britain to look for edible food. They forage responsibly, and, as far as fungi are concerned, are fully signed up to the code that was agreed by all parties back in the 1990s.

Why did the FC impose such a draconian ban? As set out in their press release and online Q & A, their case is that picking has ‘detrimental impacts’ on wildlife. Mushrooms provide food for ‘insects and other species’. Removing fungi prevents them from ripening and dispersing their spores, the fungal equivalent of seeds. And rare fungi might be collected in error. The FC reluctantly admits that there is very little scientific evidence that picking is in fact harmful, and that ‘there is conflicting opinion as to whether picking has a detrimental impact on fungi populations’. Their ban is therefore precautionary. Better safe than sorry, implies the Forestry Commission.

In imposing the ban, without consultation with the stakeholders most affected by it, the FC can insist it has the full support of the other major players in the Forest. Its press release contains statements from the National Park Authority and the National Trust. By implication, at least, the ban is backed by Natural England, the body responsible for SSSIs, although, interestingly, they are not quoted. The ban comes into immediate effect. From now on, anyone found picking mushrooms without a permit can expect to be apprehended by a member of FC staff, their mushrooms confiscated and ‘returned to the Forest’, and they may face a charge. ‘We encourage people to enjoy the autumn spectacle of fungi’, insists the FC. ‘We just ask that they don’t pick’. Actually they don’t ‘ask’ (which implies a choice). They demand with threats.

It is a fair bet that regular foragers know more about fungi than the FC, and care more about them too. So what can they say in the face of such apparent unanimity from the Forest establishment. Quite a lot. First, they point out that there are at least 2,700 species of larger fungi in the Forest (we know that because mycologists have picked and identified them). Of these only a dozen are regularly picked, and all of them are common. Secondly, mushrooms are not like flowering plants. What we see of them is the fruit body, usually produced in the autumn with the purpose of ripening and dispersing spores. Although the analogy is not precise, picking mushies is more like picking blackberries or apples than uprooting plants. It doesn’t destroy the organism which, for most of these species, is bound up in the roots of trees. Most importantly, there is no evidence that mushroom picking is not sustainable. On the contrary there is quite a lot of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that it is. Science suggests that the damage caused by picking is negligible.

The New Forest has many problems. Why then pick on mushroom pickers? Probably for two reasons. The first is that foraging has been given a bad name by commercial pickers who reportedly carry off van loads of fungi for the trade. Such cases make local people angry and ensure the attention of journalists. On the other hand, those who forage regularly in the Forest, who are effectively its eyes and ears, have witnessed no such raids despite ‘collectively thousands of days spent teaching and recording in the Forest’.

The FC also thinks public opinion is on its side. It would be madness to proceed otherwise. Our views have been conditioned by these horror stories of parties of East Europeans hoovering up every mushroom in sight. Whether or not picking actually causes any damage, people have become convinced that it does. So let’s ban it.

So there we are. Another source of harmless pleasure has been denied us by the killjoys in our midst. If it was just the New Forest it might not matter so much. But picking has also been banned in Epping Forest (with subsequent prosecutions) and there seems to be a gathering momentum to ban it elsewhere too, for example on National Trust properties and SSSIs. It hurts all the more that in this case the ban has been inflicted by a body which in the past did all in its power to ruin the enclosed woods of the New Forest. The FC’s posture as a guardian of the Forest’s natural treasures is quite new.

Personally I hope there are heroes out there who will defy the FC’s unilateral ban and let the courts decide who is right. The legal basis for a ban is dubious (for we too have rights). But whatever side you take in this fight, please don’t confuse the ban with conservation. It isn’t. It’s about Big Brother watching you, and, as we know, he is always right.

 

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26 Replies to “Guest blog – Big Brother FC says No! by Peter Marren”

  1. Released pheasants roaming over commission land probably do more damage than casual mushroom picking. Are they going to ensure the complete removal of pheasants from the forest estate? On a precautionary basis....

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  2. Thanks for the article. Well argued. Agree, let foragers fulfil a fundamental piece of animal/human behaviour.
    The only fungi harvesting that should have been banned since forever is the taking of the Saccharomyces family. They produce a slow but deadly mycotoxin.
    Problem is very few of us moderate imbibing it.

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  3. This is perhaps another example of excessive commercialism bringing an entire activity into disrepute. The DGS petition is directed at... Driven Grouse Shooting. A more selective approach, actively enforcing a ban on intensive commercial fungi collecting would be a lot easier to justify.

    If there is an issue with intensive commercial mushroom collecting (and I'm a lot less sanguine about the ecological and social consequences of regular and systematic stripping of every single fruiting body out of our best and largest surviving ancient woodland landscapes than Peter Marren evidently is) then enforcing a ban on commercial picking seems a much better way to go. Is this FC decision, then, another bit of collateral damage from the failure of the legal system to take wildlife crime seriously? Another bit of collateral damage from the lack of resources to effectively warden/ safeguard wildlife sites?

    Given the cuts, and the lack of political will, and the much greater impact of modern commercial collecting compared to traditional personal foraging (several orders of magnitude greater) I have more sympathy for the FC. They're between a rock and a hard place, it seems to me.

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    1. "regular and systematic stripping of every single fruiting body out of our best and largest surviving ancient woodland landscapes"

      I'm sorry - but this sounds like pure BS to me.

      Every single fruiting body? Of every single fungus? It'd take an army of thousands to achieve this even for a period of about 12 hours 'all clear'.

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      1. Totally agree Stan, I have picked a lot of mushrooms in the Forest but I always see old large fruit bodies wriggling with maggots left behind. As for gangs stripping it bare. Not sure I have seen that. My favourite patches have been cleared by people that got there first. All I do is go to my next favourite patch or walk a bit further. There is no shortage and the crop levels depend almost entirely on the weather and also "the whether" the Forestry Commission or National Trust have come and cleared the trees or not.

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        1. Regarding the old 'gangs of Eastern Europeans' chestnut, there are certainly a large number of Eastern European temporary workers employed in seasonal labour in the northern part of the Forest and surrounds where I live, and then there are the (English) blokes in Salisbury Market who have been selling 'Wild New Forest Mushrooms' apparently unimpeded for years. Add these to a disgruntled forager finding their favourite patch has been visited by somebody up brighter and earlier than they, and you have your gangs of mysterious Lithuanian banditos roaming the dells and dales devouring mushrooms left right and center. Never let reality get in the way of a good prejudice.

          That said, the picking ban is a load of shite and I, like everyone else who forages in the Forest on a regular basis, will ignore it comprehensively and if anyone asks, claim I accidentally kicked this large cep into my basket, Officer, and was just off to return it to the Forest - specifically, the bit of the Forest that contains my kitchen.

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  4. Have FC said how easy (or not) it will be to get a licence? What conditions will the licence impose? Could members of the Association of Foragers automatically be granted a licence, or rather than impose a ban FC simply require foragers to 'pick responsibly' (given the low impact of picking it sounds as though it would be quite hard to pick irresponsibly - but some basic common sense guidance would do no harm, e.g. don't pick all the mushrooms so there are some left for others to enjoy)

    Agree picking seems an odd target - you would have thought of many threats and problems in woodland and forestry (too many deer, inappropriate planting, tree diseases, climate change, grey squirrels etc.) that the FC would be better diverting their energy to. With reference to actual scientific evidence of course.

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  5. Puzzled: is this a 'total ban' or can the public apply for these fungi foraging licences? If so, at what cost in money and effort? What criteria must the applicant satisfy? If this is merely more onerous, public-funded bureaucracy then that's another strike against FC.

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  6. Although I do have some sympathy for the FC, and I think JBC, as ever, makes some very good points in his comment above; a complete ban does seems very heavy handed. 'Taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut' as it were.

    Professor Lynne Boddy's comment's in Sunday's Gruaniad provides some insight into why the FC may have panicked: “People say picking fungi is just like picking blackberries off a bush. But it is not,” she said. “Plants like the blackberry bush evolved to produce fruit that contain their seeds, which birds and animals eat and transmit through their droppings. These berries exist to spread seeds................"These foragers are like bottom-trawling dredgers that rip up the seabed in search of shellfish. They do incredible damage. I think the concerns of the New Forest and other areas of special scientific interest are quite justifiable.”

    Looking at the bigger picture I do worry though of the consequence of alienating local foragers, as Peter rightly points out these people are often the "eyes and ears". And surely foraging is also a really great way of not only encouraging people to visit the forest, but to also to immerse themselves in it. The more people are encouraged, or rather given the freedom (within reason) to enjoy nature reserves on their own terms the more likely they are to help safeguard them for future generations.

    This case reminds of a small basin mire which was used by a handful of local people to harvest negligible amounts of sphagnum in order to make wreaths at Christmas. A new reserve manager decided to ban them from doing so sighting it as a: 'potentially damaging operation' - seemingly oblivious to the fact that these very same locals had played a key role in stopping the site from being drained and forested before she was probably even born.

    The Association of Foragers and it's 85 members should be treated by the FC as allies, not pariah's!

    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/sep/04/new-forest-bans-fungi-pickers

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    1. Hi Earnest

      Just on the Sphagnum point, on SSSIs, the list of Potentially Damaging Operations is very long and exhaustive, because (until recently) it was not possible to change the list unless the whole SSSI was renotified all over again. Some PDOs may be only damaging at certain intensities, and may indeed be even desirable in certain circumstances. Something along the lines of 'removing plant material or turf' would have been on the list for a site like this.

      When a person wants to undertake an activity that is on the list of Potentially Damaging Operations, the test is (or should be) whether that activity has the potential to damage the special feature for which the SSSI has been notified. If it doesn't, or if the activity can be modified so that it doesn't, then there is no reason for the statutory nature conservation body to refuse consent.

      Accepting that your description of the events is correct, it sounds as if the purpose of the PDO list has been misunderstood in this case.

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      1. In this instance the statutory nature conservation body, English Nature as it was then, didn't have any issue with the sphagnum collectors afaik . The 'ban' was the unilateral decision of a reductionist reserves manager employed by a conservation NGO. Whether the management conditions were misunderstood or not, I can't be 100% sure, although I suspect a misanthropic element to the thinking. As it was the ban was largely ignored, but it did create some unnecessary ill-feeling amongst local people who should be been treated as allies.

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    2. Lynn Boddy's comments are surprisingly emotional and alarmist. Commercial pickers with any sense do not bottom trawl the forest. People say they take everything, even the poisonous ones but what interest would they have in picking something which takes up space and weight and carrying it miles back to a vehicle for no financial gain? Even worse a poisonous specimen in a mixed box would mean the box needs to thrown away.

      I agree with the comments about plastic bags. Maybe edible mushrooms have developed because it is beneficial to the species to have the fruiting bodies picked up and carried around which helps spread the spores. If this wasn't a real possibility then surely the most common species would be the most poisonous whereas I find by far the commonest are the most delicious. I also think that since starting to pick cep in the New Forest 30+ years ago (before it became fashionable) if anything the cep have become more widespread. And what about France, Italy and the whole of Eastern Europe? They have had a tradition of picking for centuries and it is a strong family culture yet the cep is still common there. The only restrictions I have heard of are to protect crops from outsiders for local people to take.

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  7. For goodness sake: apply for a licence and stop whingeing.

    The FC is horrendously under-resourced and this is just a way of trying to get some measure of control in those circumstances.

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    1. Simon you haven't read the article. There will not be any licences for local pickers unless you are a university professor or similar.

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  8. Good for the ban I say.
    Nobody needs to pick wild mushrooms.
    Treat 'em as wildflowers; enjoy the view, take a photo, leave to nature.

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  9. While there is no doubt that foraging is an excellent way for people to connect with nature and causes no harm if done in moderation it all about the level at which it is done. Fungi are the same as fish, trees etc. in that they are a renewable resource if harvested in moderation it is very easy to over harvest if there are no regulations in place. While individual foragers may be responsible and not over harvest how to they know how many other people are collecting from the same area. The Blog does not say much about what fungi actually are. Fungi are a mass of individual threads (hyphae) in the soil or dead wood (some fungi are parasitic on living trees or other plants or even other fungi, but these species are generally not edible and can be ignored in this discussion). The hyphea can live for years or decades while the visible mushrooms may only last for a week or so and be present for a few months each year. The hyphea absorb nutrients and energy some of which is used to produce more hyphea and some of which is used to produce the visible mushrooms which distribute spores. If a mushroom is picked the hyphea use up more energy to grow a new one. While it is true that the visible mushroom is a tiny part of the whole organism (the largest living organism on the planet is not a giant sequoia but a honey fungus in Oregon that covers many acres) every time a mushroom is picked a tiny percentage of the fungi is removed. Again it comes down to a matter of how much is collected. If one person removes a tiny percentage of an organism it is sustainable, if a lot of people each remove a tiny percentage of an organism faster than that organism can regrow it will shrink and eventually disappear. A good motto (which could also apply to all other areas of your life) is "think what would happen if 7 billion people did what I am doing". Depleting and eventually killing the fungi is almost certainly far more of an issue than preventing the individual mushrooms from releasing spores.
    Fungi are a vital part of a forest ecosystem. Some species are saprophytic, meaning they break down dead wood and recycle the nutrients (fungi can also break down other dead organic matter). Other species, including a large number of the edible species such as chanterelles, hedgehog fungi, numerous species or boletus etc. are mycorrhizal. These species form a symbiotic relationship with plants, in the case of edible fungi mostly trees. The hyphae attach to the roots of trees and absorb water and nutrients, some of which are passed on to the tree in return for some of the sugars that the tree produces through photosynthesis that the fungi cannot produce itself. Since mycorrizal fungi can be thought of as an extension of the trees root system the tree would not grow as well if they were not present.
    To sum up:-
    Fungi are a vital part of the ecosystem.
    Collecting small amounts is sustainable and a fantastic way for people to connect with nature.
    Individual foragers will mostly act responsibly.
    If too many people pick fungi over a number of years the amount of fungi will decrease.
    If there are less fungi this will have a detrimental effect on the rest of the ecosystem.
    While it may seem like the Forestry Commission are being killjoys, this is actually an all too rare case of a government body trying to put the natural world ahead of the needs of people.
    The Forestry Commission should be applauded from the rooftops for doing this even if they have slightly overreacted and a permit system would be better than a total ban

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    1. My gut instinct is always to leave well alone, so I agree with Andy.

      It is therefore good to read Matt's excellent explanation of why fungi matter so much in the wider scheme of things.

      Not surprising, really, as there is an interconnected web of life we can so easily mess up - and usually do.

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    2. 'If too many people pick fungi over a number of years the amount of fungi will decrease'. You state this as if it were a fact. Can you cite any research that came to that conclusion? I can cite research that led to the opposite conclusion. The FC's action was based on fear and administrative convenience, not science

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      1. Here's the thing, you might say that the fruiting bodies produced by a localised structure of mycellium might vary slightly, year on year conditions will effect how much energy resources will be put into the production of the fruiting bodies. But you're missing some points because you're focused on your indifferently evidenced contention that the mycellium is a magical being that will produce fruiting bodies ad infinitum (as there is as much evidence to suggest this as the opposite).
        If you harvest before the spores are released, you are affecting the long term survival of the species by limiting its spread. This makes it less resistant to many factors of change, including climate. So, yes, in the long term, you would likely see less as new populations aren't created and changing conditions cause attrition in the existing population.
        Do you argue with the National Trust or Wildlife Trust for their bans on picking on land that they manage, including Nature Reserves, why is this any different?

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    3. "If too many people pick fungi over a period of years the amount of fungi will decrease" , totally incorrect!!!

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  10. I make 2 observations and a bit of opinion
    : my first visit to a carpark in the New forest for over 40 years was last year and the only other occupant was a woman with a ceramic knife combing the forest floor. She had 3 large carrier bags of funghi by a bench. She did not have a car and was collected by a van.
    Some Forests we visit in Spain and France have strong warnings about collection as certain species are so depleted.
    Reference the craze for gull's eggs and the recent stealing of eggs from the Poole Harbour colonies...we no longer live in a country with a small population so if we all want wild mushrooms or wild gull eggs or edible snails from Sussex reserves the price goes up and gangs move in. The FC has probably banned all collection because otherwise the burden of proof is too difficult as has been proven on the grouse moors.

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  11. This lopsided argument is so laden with inaccuracies, I'm not going to corral all of them. But:
    Commercial picking of fungi in the wild was banned by the Theft Act 1964.
    The 1.5 kg "limit" was based on the FC's misreading of the national guidance provided by the 1998 Wild Mushroom Pickers Code of Conduct by English Nature developed in conjunction with Forestry Commission, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Association of British Fungus Groups and the British Mycological Society. This suggests the 1.5kg limit for culinary collecting per "visit", in context, per foray. The FC misinterpreted this as per person/per day. They further compounded the error by then ignoring the code's statement that culinary collection is inappropriate on SSSI and National Nature Reserves where scientific collection may be allowed.

    Organized fungi forays for scientific/educational purposes have always required permit from the FC in the New Forest (that's not to say that some haven't ignored the permit system).

    The blackberry analogy isn't merely imperfect, it's absolute rubbish. The short glib answer is : nobody is worried about the population of blackberry bramble. The longer response is: a. Blackberry population is much greater and currently sustainable. b. Blackberry pickers take only the fruit, not the entire visible portion of the plant, the New Forest is a National Park and fungi are a glorious part of the Autumn display that should be left for all to enjoy. c. Blackberry fruits are only harvested by pickers when they are ripe, they may be eaten by wildlife before this, and when pickers miss the optimal ripeness opportunity, after. Fungi are being removed when they are seen, not left for an optimal ripening. If picked when still at “button” stage, they have not released spores. d. Blackberries tend to conveniently, for pickers, grow on the sunny side of rides and paths, much blackberry picking is done from here, an inherently more robust location, without, or with much less disturbance to undergrowth. Fungi are spread throughout the woodland floor. The trampling damage by harvesters alone is of grave concern, and contributes to potentially damaging operations which are restricted on SSSI. e. The seeds in blackberry fruit are part of its distribution mechanism, the amount left unpicked, and fed upon by wildlife sustainably spreads the next generation. Fungi fruiting bodies contain spores that go unreleased if they are picked, and may contain insect eggs, interrupting both distribution mechanisms, depleting the next generation.

    It is perfectly reasonable for the FC to take a precautionary approach. The New Forest SSSI is a highly designated gem of biodiversity (and one of the few SSSI that have fungi amongst their "notified" features). It sits in the most densely populated National Park, hemmed on many sides by conurbation, open access land under extreme recreational pressure. If foragers really do feel a closer connection with nature, they should show respect for our most protected habitats, not to mention other's enjoyment of the visual display in a protected landscape.

    The New Forest Association campaigned for this ban in the hope that it would raise the profile of these protections, and that it would make it easier for the FC Keepers to target those overdoing it whether or not they were collecting commercially or personally, and without having to weigh harvests against an absurd arbitrary limit. As it stands now enforcement is at the Keepers discretion and includes handing out educational leaflets about the ban (for those taking small amounts), seizure and destruction of harvest, and handing out Natural England stop notices (for the repeat offenders we want targeted).

    We are not entitled to take from nature any place any time in perpetuity. We ask for respect for our most protected habitats.

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    1. Brian. The problem here is that you do not understand mathematics and simple set theory. If you define a complete set and do not allow for overlap then you come to massive mistakes in judgement.
      i.e. Not all mushroom pickers are commercial pickers or irresponsible
      Not all photographers find mushrooms interesting subjects
      In contrast many people that gain advantage from a natural resource actually care about the resource and it's environment.

      However here is the problem with a complete set. You have defined all mushroom picking as damaging when you pushed for this total ban but you believe it is still important to pick specimens, especially the rare ones, for identification purposes. That must mean you are damaging them too, especially the rare ones.

      If we applied the same complete set theory with no overlap to a group of conservationists then by reading your comments we could come to very wrong conclusions about conservationists as a whole.

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    2. Sorry, slight correction, Theft Act year was 1968. Still doesn't change the order in which things actually happened. Also should note that in 1969 the Forestry Commission agreed in a Minute of Intent with English Nature to manage the New Forest as a National Nature Reserve. This sort of prohibition is not unheard of on Nature Reserves...., if anything the FC have gone the long way around.

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  12. Unenforceable - (the removal of fungi for personal consumption falls between 3 laws, none of which make it prosecutable) - Unsupported (there is not a thread of documented scientific evidence to support the suggestion that picking fungi, regardless of the quantity picked, has any detrimental effect on future populations)- Unfair (to punish individuals enjoying the forest in a way they have done for hundreds if not thousands of years in order to discourage these mythical gangs of commercial foragers) - Unsubstantiated - (see above, where is this evidence of "mass stripping", it does not exist, what the FC have recorded in the last 2 years does not back this up one iota..ask to see their repoerts) - Untrue (this "ban" has nothing to do with ecology and everything to do with politics, pressure from local lobbyists and an ongoing media campaign that has, very successfully, reported the same untruths year in year out) - Unclear (is it a ban, a call for licensing, a request or a threat?) - Unheard of ( the rest of Europe thinks we are a joke, they harvest their fungi on mass annually and enjoy the experience, safe in the time proven knowledge that they will be able to do the same the following year) Underhand - (the FC were in discussion with foragers about these issues and had promised to look into various approaches, but never discussed that behind closed doors, they were still singing the same old song and pushing ahead with this policy regardless) - Unpleasant (the constant references to gangs, eastern europeans, theft and profiteering, maybe not exactly by the FC but they have constantly allowed the national press to report things in this disgusting way without contradiction... and the FC have made utterly no effort whatsoever to engage with the large Polish community in Southampton, have never printed any literature or put up a poster in polish...if their are cultural differences, and believe me there are (mushroom collecting is a very normal past time in Poland), they should be met with conversation and outreach, not harsh words and harsher measures) - Unbalanced - (even if the activities of foragers were to threaten the local existence of a couple of species of grubs and insects, are they keystone species, vital to the balance of this supposedly fragile eco-system, no they are not, but that aside why are they so at risk from one tiny cross section of people who use the forest not all the rest, the dog walkers who make 500 metres around every new forest car park into a repulsive animal toilet, the mountain bikers who surely contribute more to compaction (what the FC like to label trampling) than any forager could ever do, the masses of tourists, the traffic, the ponies, the 7-800 pigs let out annually onto the forest and most notably the FC themselves who have destroyed vast areas or our beautiful woodland and replaced them with christmas trees and continue to us Glyphosate in the forest despite every other country in Europe having banned it). Unbelievable!

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