Fungus foragers warned over wild mushroom poisonings

Amateur mushroom pickers are putting themselves in hospital. Credit: Reuters

By Lara Whyte: ITV News

Mushroom foragers are being urged to take greater care after dozens of people ended up in hospital from poisoning.

Public Health England said 84 cases of mushroom poisoning have been reported so far this year, and the season is not yet in full swing. They are warning that many wild mushrooms that grow in the UK countryside can cause serious illness if eaten, and some are deadly.

Last year there were a total of 237 cases of poisoning across the UK, many involving children under ten. Dr John Thompson, director of the National Poisons Information Service said it was essential those picking their own food knew the risks.

It is always at this time of year that we see a noticeable increase in poisoning cases. This is because while many mushrooms growing in the wild are tasty and safe to eat, it is not always easy to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species even for people with experience in foraging.

Dr John Thompson, National Poisons Information Service

Geoff Dann works as a mushroom foraging instructor and says there has been a marked increase in people picking their own mushrooms over the past few years. Speaking to ITV News, he said:

When I started going foraging for mushrooms 30 years ago, I was basically alone, apart from the occasional hippies looking for magic mushrooms. Now it is very popular and everyone is doing it.

Geoff Dann, mushroom foraging instructor

Many of his clients are chefs at restaurants or gastropubs looking for interesting flavours for their meals.

He says the most common mistake people make is going out with an idea of the mushroom they want to find, and finding something that is similar, but with a few essential differences, and kidding themselves that they have found what they were after.

Professor Richard Forty, Vice President of the British Mycological Society, blames the recent increases in foraging and associated dangers with the growing publicity given to wild food by celebrity chefs.

Speaking to ITV News, he said identifying mushrooms is actually a very skilled job and should not be undertaken on the assumption that it is easy.

He said the recent rise in foraging is having a negative effect across the country, and said in some areas such as New Forest, large swaths of fields are being completely cleared.

A few mushrooms are very distinctive but there are many more that are very difficult to identify. We feel that most people don't know how to pick them, and we have seen cases where every mushroom will be picked and brought to an expert, who will then discard those not edible. We prefer for them not to be picked in this way.

Professor Richard Forty

The society would prefer amateur foragers get some expert advice before setting off, for their own safety, but also to conserve the many varieties of fungi contained in fields across the UK.

I am not against people picking mushrooms, but it is a hazardous business.

Professor Richard Forty