Page last updated at 21:52 GMT, Monday, 15 September 2008 22:52 UK

Wild fungi: delicious or deadly?

Slippery Jack mushrooms
A survey is currently under way to see just how many people gather mushrooms and other wild food in the Scottish countryside

By Giancarlo Rinaldi
South of Scotland reporter, BBC Scotland news website

There used to be only a few hardy souls who braved the Scottish countryside in search of woodland mushrooms.

Many of them were members of the Italian community who set out each September in pursuit of the "gold" to be found in the nation's forests.

However, a number of factors appear to have seen mushroom gathering figures rise in recent years.

This summer's heavy rains may have made life miserable for holidaymakers but they have helped fungi thrive.

In addition, the credit crunch has increased the attraction of being able to go out into the forest and pick up some food for free.

Advice on how to tell if a mushroom is poisonous or safe

Finally, the arrival of immigrants from other countries where wild mushrooms are considered a delicacy has also played its part.

However, the pastime comes with some risks as the recent case of the Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans dramatically highlighted.

He took seriously ill while on holiday in Moray after a party he was with picked and cooked some wild mushrooms.

It underlined the need for caution from anyone gathering fungi.

Despite the dangers, it is a pursuit which Dr David Genney, Scottish Natural Heritage's Inverness-based policy and advice officer for fungi, would hate to see die out.

"I certainly encourage people to go out and enjoy and use fungi - their sustainable use has to be encouraged," he said.

Duncan Ford with fungi
Duncan Ford said there were no rules for what fungi were safe

"But in terms of personal safety the number one rule is - don't eat anything unless you are absolutely sure what it is.

"My personal advice is to stick to some of the fungi that taste the best and are simplest to identify."

That includes the likes of chanterelles, ceps and wood hedgehogs.

"Stick to the safe species and make sure you know what all the deadly poisonous fungi look like," he added.

Among the most dangerous are the ones which carry the most sinister names like the Deathcap, Fly Agaric, Deadly Webcap and Destroying Angel.

The advice is simple to anyone who thinks they may have consumed a mushroom which has made them ill.

Dr Genney said: "Call your local hospital, NHS 24 or GP emergency centre.

"They will contact an expert to try and get your mushroom identified."

From there they should be able to establish what course of action to take.

Walking through the Hoddam and Kinmount Estate in Dumfriesshire with ranger Duncan Ford it is not hard to see how difficulties can arise.

The sheer range of wild mushrooms is astonishing.

He says he has seen a definite increase in interest in people picking food in the countryside.

"For whatever the reason there has been quite a surge in wild food gathering generally," he said.

"Our fungus walks are extremely popular and it is new faces every time."

He preaches a similar message to Dr Genney.

Fly Agaric
The Fly Agaric is among the mushrooms which should not be eaten

"From the safety point of view - you don't take chances, it's as simple as that," he said.

"There is no such thing as a rule to what fungi are safe or not - there are far too many exceptions."

The expert advice, therefore, is that there is no reason not to enjoy wild mushrooms as long as you exercise sensible precautions.

There is also a conservation message attached to the growth in fungi gathering.

Both Dr Genney and Mr Ford have urged people only to "pick what they need" and not to strip the forest bare.

Mushrooms can fetch a high price from restaurants as well as overseas.

There are concerns that this more "industrial harvesting" could seriously damage the wide variety of fungi currently found across Scotland.

Balancing act

A survey is now under way to gauge the exact scale of mushroom gathering in the country.

Reforesting Scotland hopes to understand just how popular the pursuit has become and also ensure it is carried out in a way which sees it remain sustainable.

It is a tough balancing act between supply, demand and conservation.

It also requires a sensible approach to personal safety.

If all those competing interests can be combined then there is no reason why everyone should not enjoy the delights that many mushroom pickers have already enjoyed for years.

Horse Whisperer author taken ill
02 Sep 08 |  North East/N Isles
Assam probe into mushroom deaths
09 Apr 08 |  South Asia
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19 Oct 07 |  Tayside and Central
Man to defy mushroom picking ban
14 Sep 07 |  Mid Wales


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