Tragedy of the commons

A long time ago, on the edges of a city far, far away, I used to spend a lot of time in late summer and autumn hunting for wild mushrooms. I got quite good at it – good enough to seldom return home empy handed. This was the early 90s, and most of my competition for the fungi of West London came from expat Europeans, especially Poles with sticks. A few chefs — most notably Antonio Carluccio — were popularising what Russians call the “quiet hunt” and using the harvest in their cooking, but the supermarkets hadn’t caught up with fashion.

One morning at the height of the season, not long before we left for New Zealand, I arrived at one of my favoured sites — Esher Common [map] (a remarkable place, where Brian Spooner from Kew has recorded over 3,000 species of fungi, making it the most fungally diverse spot ever studied) — to find the car park nearly full. There must have a dozen or more people unloading bags full of mushrooms into boxes. It was my first encounter with commercial picking, and they must have systematically hoovered their way through the woodland, because I could find nothing at all.

The legality of commercial picking is however open to question, as this piece by Peter Marren in The Guardian explores…

“Can we have open access and yet ban mushroom picking? In theory, we can. Any landowner can apply to the local authority for an order against blackberry pickers, moss gatherers or butterfly collectors. In this land of the free, any of Mother Nature’s bounties, even the meanest, sourest berry or nut, is deemed to be private property. In the case of the New Forest, which is managed by the Forestry Commission, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decided that it owned the mushrooms. In the 1990s, it banned commercial picking over the entire forest, and banned foraging for mushrooms altogether in certain woods.”

Marren then goes on to describe how Defra then tried to prosecute a little old lady for picking mushrooms in the New Forest, only to find the judge throwing the case out as waste of his time. Good on His Honour…

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