An increase in popularity of foraging for food has raised health concerns as wildlife experts predict a bumper crop of mushrooms in the countryside this autumn.
Whether people are being driven to forage in search of a supply of cheap fresh food post-recession, or perhaps inspired by a glut of television shows about living off the land, the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is one organisation that is reporting huge popularity of its foraging workshops.
Joanna Richards, the Trust’s communications officer, said: “Foraging seems to be growing in popularity. This may relate to changing habits linked to the recession, but I think that, generally, people are encouraged by wildlife and cookery programmes.
“Interest certainly is increasing for our own fungi identification events and many of the people attending these courses are interested in whether or not mushrooms are edible - something that can only truly be checked by picking them and taking them home to identify using a spore print and other methods.”
Autumn usually offers prime conditions for fungi - popular foraging fodder - and the Trust believes the recent wet weather could see a particularly strong growing season in the coming weeks, with over 5,000 species possibly on show.
Fungi that appears at this time of the year are the fruiting bodies of a vast underground network, which in many cases forms symbiotic relationships with the roots of plants. The often striking-looking mushrooms release spores to reproduce, adding a dash of colour to the autumnal countryside.
While they might make for an impressive visual spectacle, Miss Richards said it was important that people gained some expertise to ensure they are not picking mushrooms that could harm their health.
“There are thousands of types of mushrooms about which makes it difficult for people to know what they are picking. People are often nervous about what to pick and what the rules are and so want some guidance.
“Generally we would suggest only harvesting a little of anything, so that plenty is left for wildlife, reproduction and others to enjoy and to avoid picking in nature reserves or protected areas where certain laws might apply.”
Despite its low profile in the conservation world, fungi is vital to ecosystems and is considered to be in urgent need of conservation, a task the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust has been able to carry out across its nature reserves with the help of more than £400,000 in grant funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery.
The Trust runs occasional day-long courses held by fungi expert Patrick Harding. Mr Harding, of Sheffield, is the author of numerous books which help newcomers identify edible mushrooms and he urged those interested in foraging to do their homework.
“You need to go on a course and talk to an expert,” he said.
“You can rely on books but you need to know how to use them. Mushrooms change size, shape and colour and it can be dependent on where they are growing.
“It’s a whole new ball game for a lot of people and unfortunately if you make a really bad decision with fungi you are dead.”
Yorkshire Wildlife Trust is holding a couple of guided walks in West Yorkshire, including one later this week, to give people more information about what to look for when foraging for fungi.
A grassland fungi walk takes place at Broadhead Clough Nature Reserve near Hebden Bridge on Friday, and a second event for children will be staged at Stirley Community Farm, Huddersfield, on Thursday, October 30.
For more information, call the Trust on 01904 659570.