Tending the Wild Mushroom

Exploring the five principles of becoming a fungal conservationist

25 August 2020

Beneath the surface of our world, under every leaf and around every root grow hidden mycelial networks that connect ecosystems, cycle nutrients, and regulate the health of each landscape. Out of sight, these networks of fungi thread their way through the substrate of the Earth, regulating the flow of chemistry and information that turn individuals into interdependent communities. They’re incredibly resilient too - scientists have found evidence for a dramatic increase in fungi immediately after the mass die-off of plants and animals during the famous K-T extinction event that killed off most dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Here in the Anthropocene, as the Sixth Great Extinction event unwinds before our eyes, fungi are now threatened with entirely novel problems never faced before - excess nitrogen pollution, herbicides, shifting temperatures and rainfall patterns, insect population collapses, and most importantly, extensive loss of habitat.

As I mentioned in my previous article on foraging, conservation mycology is lagging behind plant and animal conservation, yet new discoveries of the sheer importance of fungi in our ecosystems continue to build and astound the scientific community. A recent update of the The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, the most comprehensive database of species and their extinction risk, now lists 343 species of fungi, 193 of which are threatened. Compare this with the 76,457 animals and 43,556 plants listed in the database, and you can start to see why there’s a lot of work to be done in mycology in the coming years.

Perhaps the biggest overarching goal of Myceliate is to inspire people to take action on protecting and restoring fungi in our local ecosystems, be that in our back gardens or in large-scale ecosystem restoration projects. There are things that we can all do as enthusiasts to add a touch of wildness to any patches of land we may have the chance to look after. But before we explore what fungal conservation might look like in your garden, let’s first get an understanding of how the fungal life cycle works so that we can be better prepared to create the optimal conditions for fungi to proliferate around us.

The Life of a Mushroom

As fungi have taken an independent path on their journey of evolution, their reproductive cycles stand in contrast to the more familiar strategies of plants and animals. Unlike animals, fungi cannot acquire their food through physical movement and strength, and unlike plants, they do not form roots or photosynthesise. By learning the life cycle of a fungus, you can learn to intuit the conditions in your garden or local park needed to promote the growth of wild fungi, ensuring bountiful flushes of fruit bodies once the autumn months roll in.

Firstly, every mushroom begins with a spore, a microscopic pollen-like store of genetic material which wafts on the wind until it reaches a suitably moist, aerated and safe location such as a dead tree stump or a leafy forest floor. Its first baby step is to germinate and send out a single-celled thread that burrows its way through its substrate, the medium it is growing through. This thread is called a hypha, and it will keep reaching out until it finds another genetically compatible hypha to fuse with, for each spore only contains half the genetic material needed to form a viable fungus.

Once connected to a suitable partner, these hyphae (plural of hypha) experience a phase of energised growth, branching out in all directions to form an interwoven web known as mycelium. This mycelium will continue to feed and grow by exuding digestive enzymes that break down its substrate into small nutrients that it can absorb. Mycelium can grow indefinitely as long as there is food - in fact, the world’s oldest and largest organism is a Honey Fungus (Armillaria ostoyae) growing in the Oregon’s Malheur National Forest that is estimated at over 8,650 years old and spans 3,726,563 square metres.

Armillaria ostoyae, the Dark Honey Fungus. Photo credit: First Nature

Once this mycelium experiences changes in its environmental conditions - a drop in temperature, an increase in moisture, or the end of its food source - this will trigger the mycelium to begin shuttling its nutrients to a small knot of hyphae at the surface of its substrate, growing sometimes in the space of a few hours to form fruit bodies - the mushrooms, cups, earthballs, and earthstars that we’re more familiar with. On a typical cap-and-stipe mushroom the underside of its cap contains fertile tissue that produces spores and releases them into the open, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, sometimes in the trillions. Each spore is a new combination of genetic material, holding the legacy of 1 billion years of fungal evolution to continue their circle of life once again.

Wild, Complex, and Untamed

As we have seen in the previous section, the food source and habitat of a fungus are one and the same thing: fungi live in their food, which (for important decomposer fungi) tends to be dead wood and leaves. Nutrients continuously get cycled from organism to organism, and as summer leaves become autumn duff, decomposer fungi begin their proliferation in earnest. These fungi are the decomposers, the saprotrophs. Some saprotrophs possess enzymes that are unique to fungi, making them the only creatures on Earth capable of breaking down complex molecules in wood such as lignin, and are responsible for over 90% of decomposition on the planet.

Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and its Birds | NHBS Academic ...

Here in the UK there’s a strange disposition amongst land managers towards avoiding decay, something that Benedict Macdonald, author of Rebirding, called “ecological tidiness disorder” where the untidy, messy sight of dead trees and rotting vegetation stirs them deeply with the urge to grub it all up and keep things neat and orderly. In recent decades, the need to make nature tidy has intensified, even in local parks and gardens where fallen branches and leaves routinely get raked up, put into plastic bins, and driven away. Removing dead wood removes biodiversity, and we must become acquainted with the wild, complex, and untamed look of functioning ecosystems if we are to live in a richer world.

In fact, this seems to be what people want. A recent YouGov poll showed that 70% of UK citizens want more wildlife in their green spaces as affection towards nature and its effects on our mental and physical health skyrocketed in the wake of the Coronavirus lockdowns. That being said, let’s now explore five principles for becoming a fungal conservationist in your own patch of land.

How to be a Fungal Conservationist

1. Let dead wood rot: Rewilding initiatives across the world regularly speak of the importance of letting the dead rest where they are, be it animal or plant in origin. Every species in a habitat has its own niche, its own behavioural space that it eked out over millennia, and those organisms that decompose and cycle nutrients back into the soil are losing out. Without the decomposers, there wouldn’t be soil, and ultimately, there wouldn’t be life. It doesn’t take more effort than to reserve areas around your habitat dedicated to fallen branches, logs and leaves. By allowing dead plant matter to build up we allow those wafting wild spores to find a home.

2. Mulch the soil: Bare soil is an open wound on the verdant skin of the Earth. In the wild, we only witness bare ground after catastrophes or after the small-scale activity of digging and burrowing animals. It isn’t long until pioneer plants eventually re-colonise those empty patches of soil. “Mulch” is the term used to describe the layer of organic matter that covers the ground, and it can come in the form of fallen leaves, twigs, and bark (as in a forest), or even cut plants. Many gardeners have fallen into the habit of excessively weeding and raking all bits of plant matter that fall on bare soil in attempt to remove any perceived imperfections. However, not only does exposed soil lose water very rapidly compared to mulch, but nutrients get degraded and washed away, and crucial fungi and bacteria die from exposure to UV rays from the sun, which gradually erodes the integrity of the soil. By mulching empty patches of ground, we can create food sources and habitat bridges for numerous species of saprotrophic fungi.

3. Abandon fertilisers and pesticides: The use of fertilisers in our fields, parks, and gardens has a major impact on fungal life even in surrounding areas such as forests, as nitrogen levels in many of these zones far exceeds what many soil-dwelling organisms can tolerate. Fungi depend on a certain balance of carbon to nitrogen, with carbon-rich soils being the prime location for fungal diversity. Pesticide use is another major cause of biodiversity loss in general, not just for fungi. These are molecules made to kill. As much as we notice so many differences between ourselves and all other non-human life, to a biochemist we are all staggeringly similar on a cellular level, so any novel chemical monkey wrench that lodges itself into the delicate biochemistry of one organism is likely to disrupt cellular signalling in another too. It is known that organic soils are not only more fertile in the long run, but also harbour more beneficial creatures than the brown dust that chemically saturated soils eventually turn into. So let us honour underground ecology, ditch the chemicals, and watch our soils myceliate back to life.

4. Plant mycorrhizal trees: Mycorrhizal fungi are a fascinating subset of fungi that form associations with living plant roots. They wrap themselves around or even penetrate root cells and set up exchanges in which the plants supply the fungi with photosynthesised carbohydrates, whilst the fungi supply the plants with nitrogen, phosphorus, and minerals. This is called mutualistic symbiosis, where both parties benefit from each other’s presence. Over 90% of all plants on Earth form these associations, and its possible that the very reason why plants evolved on land is because they set up nutrient exchanges with fungi long before soils existed. When trees grow in the wild, they make connections with other trees through these common mycelial networks that spread across the forest. These networks shuttle nutrients and information between trees, supporting growth, retaining moisture, and increasing resilience against environmental stress. When we plant trees, it is good practice to dip their roots in mycorrhizal spores or samples of healthy woodland soil to inoculate them with symbiotic fungi.

5. Collect IMO’s and radiate mycelium: The soils of healthy habitats are so rich in life that 1 teaspoon may contain up to 1,000,000,000 bacteria, and under every footstep may be up to 300 miles of mycelial threads. We can spread these populations of indigenous microorganisms (IMO’s) by excavating small amounts of healthy soil and bringing them to our gardens, or any grounds that are in need of revitalisation. Much like the way we eat probiotics - living cultures of beneficial bacteria - to inoculate our digestive systems and improve our microbiomes, so we inoculate our gardens with bacteria and fungi to improve soil health. Bacteria work closely with fungi, and it has been shown that fungi are capable of promoting the growth of specific species of bacteria on their hyphae. When we dig these into our soils, we allow them to radiate outwards, forming connections with plant roots and decomposing dead matter that effectively restores some wildness in our cultivated soils. Every patch of soil restored to health is a noble act of ecological restoration.

Stewards of our landscapes

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of ...

Any of my readers interested in ecological restoration, responsible land stewardship, conservation, and rewilding may have noticed what the title of this article has been alluding to. Tending the Wild, an fascinating book by Katherine Anderson explores how the rich wildlife of California was influenced by the knowledge and care of Indigenous communities, and swiftly dismantles the pervasive notion that humans are somehow scourges on the planet that always negatively impact their environment wherever they settle. Pioneer conservationist John Muir even thought that much of California before the arrival of Europeans was pristine, untouched wilderness, which still shapes our view of nature to this day.

It is now becoming clear that much of the Amazon rainforest and its incredible diversity has also been shaped by the human hand over the course of thousands of years. Humans have selectively grown and propagated numerous species of fruit and nut trees using polyculture and agroforestry techniques, and the result of their impact on their environment is now one of the richest terrestrial ecosystems on the planet.

Fungi, being the elusive organisms they are, have largely evaded scientific inquiry into past interaction with humans, but it would not surprise me if we soon discover that indigenous activity has beneficial effects on fungal populations. Currently, there is ongoing research into the ways in which we can improve the production of edible mushrooms in forests, which may even incentivise the protection and ecological stewardship of these habitats.

This is why I believe that by learning about fungi, we gain a better understanding of what it means to be human. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have had a very predictable niche in every continent we inhabited, and we routinely opened up habitats for other creatures to thrive by virtue of our hunting, gathering, and horticultural ways. We enhanced ecosystems by living within them, we made them part of who we were and in turn, gave back through increased abundance. It is our nature to do this, and in the coming months we will further explore ways in which we can weave ourselves back into this mycelial web of life once again.

References

  1. Casadevall, A., 2012. Fungi and the rise of mammals. PLoS Pathog8(8), p.e1002808.
  2. Dahlberg, A., Genney, D.R. and Heilmann-Clausen, J., 2010. Developing a comprehensive strategy for fungal conservation in Europe: current status and future needs. Fungal Ecology3(2), pp.50-64.
  3. IUCN Red List, 2020. <https://www.iucnredlist.org/search> [Accessed: 23.08.2020]
  4. Oregon’s Giant: The Largest Organism on Earth, SciPlanet, 2019. <https://www.bibalex.org/SCIplanet/en/Article/Details?id=13515#:~:text=Armillaria%20ostoyae%2C%20commonly%20known%20as,be%20around%208%2C650%20years%20old.> [Accessed: 23.08.2020]
  5. Osono, T., 2007. Ecology of ligninolytic fungi associated with leaf litter decomposition. Ecological Research22(6), pp.955-974.
  6. Macdonald, B., 2019. Rebirding: Rewilding Britain and Its Birds. Pelagic Publishing Ltd.
  7. Coronavirus lockdown: Three-quarters of the UK want more wildlife and plants added to their green spaces. inews, 2020. <https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/wellbeing/coronavirus-lockdown-uk-wildlife-plants-green-spaces-433679> [Accessed: 23.08.2020]
  8. The Circle of Life project: supporting Europe’s scavengers. Rewilding Europe, 2017. <https://rewildingeurope.com/blog/the-circle-of-life-project-supporting-europes-scavengers/> [Accessed 23.08.2020]
  9. Wallenstein, M.D., McNulty, S., Fernandez, I.J., Boggs, J. and Schlesinger, W.H., 2006. Nitrogen fertilization decreases forest soil fungal and bacterial biomass in three long-term experiments. Forest Ecology and Management222(1-3), pp.459-468.
  10. Aktar, W., Sengupta, D. and Chowdhury, A., 2009. Impact of pesticides use in agriculture: their benefits and hazards. Interdisciplinary toxicology2(1), pp.1-12.
  11. Bonfante, P. and Genre, A., 2010. Mechanisms underlying beneficial plant–fungus interactions in mycorrhizal symbiosis. Nature communications1(1), pp.1-11.
  12. Mycorrhiza Inoculation. Green Man Conservation. <http://www.greenmanconservation.co.uk/Mycorrhiza.htm#Application%20of%20Mycorrhizae> [Accessed: 23.08.2020]
  13. Bacteria. Dr. Elaine Ingham. <https://web.extension.illinois.edu/soil/SoilBiology/bacteria.htm> [Accessed: 23.08.2020]
  14. Stamets, P., 2005. Mycelium running: how mushrooms can help save the world. Random House Digital, Inc..
  15. Worrich, A., Stryhanyuk, H., Musat, N., König, S., Banitz, T., Centler, F., Frank, K., Thullner, M., Harms, H., Richnow, H.H. and Miltner, A., 2017. Mycelium-mediated transfer of water and nutrients stimulates bacterial activity in dry and oligotrophic environments. Nature communications8(1), pp.1-9.
  16. Anderson, M.K., 2013. Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California's natural resources. University of California Press.
  17. Maezumi, S.Y., Alves, D., Robinson, M., de Souza, J.G., Levis, C., Barnett, R.L., de Oliveira, E.A., Urrego, D., Schaan, D. and Iriarte, J., 2018. The legacy of 4,500 years of polyculture agroforestry in the eastern Amazon. Nature plants4(8), pp.540-547.
  18. Savoie, J.M. and Largeteau, M.L., 2011. Production of edible mushrooms in forests: trends in development of a mycosilviculture. Applied microbiology and biotechnology89(4), pp.971-979.

Culture and Controversy

In many ways, to forage is to be human. Virtually every culture throughout history has derived its identity largely from the land they lived on and the food that it provided them, and this pattern can still be seen in traditional societies today. Foraging gets us out into nature, connects us with the myriad wild species around us, and provides us with some of the world’s more nutritious food. Collecting mushrooms soothes our minds and allows us to slip back into the relaxed pace at which nature operates, making us feel closer to the world we come from.

Mushroom picking, photo: Vladimir Smirnov/ITAR-TASS/PAP.

Whilst countries in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, North America, and East Asia celebrate their thriving mushroom foraging cultures with little to no controversy, here in the UK the scene is very different indeed. If you live outside the UK, you may be surprised to find that not only is foraging not as popular as it is in other countries, but it’s also shunned by the culture at large. The media don’t do it any justice either. Every autumn you can bet your bolete that tabloid newspapers will be chugging out their run-of-the-mill sensationalist news articles with titles such as,

Forests stripped of mushrooms by gangs after best crop in years”,

Eastern European mushroom mobs: New Forest is stripped bare by fungi rustlers”, and 

Ruthless foragers strip Epping Forest of vital mushrooms that help sustain wildlife and protect trees”…

…all of which taint the peaceful reality of foraging culture with a malicious edge. Whilst incidents of bad practice in commercial foraging do sometimes occur, these news stories don’t accurately represent the blossoming foraging scene that actually exists in the undercurrents of society.

In fact, this undercurrent seems to be building to a swell as more and more people are drawn to the pleasures of picking their own food. We can see this with the increasing popularity of guided foraging walks and the uptick of new mushroom identification Facebook groups in the last few years. This interest has attracted an assortment of people with wildly different levels of experience, and along with them, some sharp opposition from mycologists and conservationists.

It doesn’t take much scrolling through these Facebook groups to see that many new people haven’t learned best practice, and some have a habit of picking whatever they find into one big container and asking “what is it and can I eat it?” Others like to show off their hefty harvests for the world to admire. Seeing all this, and being intimately aware of rare species and the sensitivity of natural habitats in Britain, some mycologists don’t think that our nature is capable of withstanding these harvesting pressures. They would rather see and end to foraging entirely. 

"Any of these edible?" Photo credit: A. Spratt @anniespratt on Unsplash.

To me, this is not evidence that foraging is a problem, it is evidence that we need more education around our interaction with nature. We need more people to know about ecological issues and conservation to help bring balance to this resurgent food culture.

Does Foraging Damage Wildlife?

My family comes from Poland, a country known for its rich and unapologetic mushroom foraging culture where children are taught from a young age what is edible and what is to be avoided. It is a widespread activity, where every autumn droves of people head out into the woods with their friends and family to stock up their pantries with nature’s bounty for the winter. This tradition runs deep into the past and across many countries.

A quick glance at these mycophilic countries of Europe might make you suspicious towards the claim that foraging is having a negative impact on wild habitats. Just imagine the sheer mountains of mushrooms harvested by people every year for personal use and commerce. Surely, their mushroom populations would have been decimated long ago?

Street market teeming with wild mushrooms in Kraków, Poland, 1931, photo: www.audiovis.nac.gov.pl (NAC).

As renowned forager John Wright puts it in his book Hedgerow, “It is of course perfectly possible to forage in a manner that is damaging to the natural world, but it is not actually all that easy.” In a large healthy ecosystem, the effects of foraging are quite minuscule since people don’t actually find every patch of mushrooms that grows, leaving many undiscovered.

There is one scientific paper that very frequently gets quoted when discussing the impacts of foraging. “Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland” by Simon Egli et al. (2006) has a self-explanatory title. It studied the impacts of mushroom foraging over a 25-year period only to find that “systematic harvesting reduces neither the future yields of fruit bodies nor the species richness of wild forest fungi…” However, what did impact mushroom yields was trampling. When mushrooms just begin to form (or ‘pin’) on the surface of the soil just under the leaf litter, they are especially prone to having their whole enterprise squished under someone’s boot. In Europe, the large extent of forest cover seems to provide a buffer for soil compaction effects, as foragers essentially have larger areas to roam.

Let’s bring this discussion back home and take a closer look at the state of wildlife here in the UK. As was mentioned in the previous section, the taboo against mushroom foraging is widespread, but it does stem from reasonable roots that should not be left out of this discussion. The answer boils down to the extent to which nature on the British Isles has been subdued and domesticated. Over 70% of the UK is farmland, leaving virtually no ecosystem in a truly wild state. Centuries of conquest and land-grabbing, topped off by harsh enclosure laws during the industrial revolution and large-scale deforestation for resources for the World Wars has left this small island bereft of thriving wild landscapes.

The UK has some of the lowest forest cover in all of Europe, largely due to widespread agriculture. Suffolk, England. Photo credit: N. Weiss @treesoftheplanet on Unsplash.

Our current form of agriculture is incredibly intensive, relying on vast inputs of nitrate fertilisers that are known to be the main cause of fungal decline (Lilleskov et al., 2019; Dahlberg, 2010), and agricultural policies that have incentivised farmers to grub up as much uncultivated habitat as they can for the sake of maximising subsidies. Additionally, fungi do not factor into environmental impact assessments the way they do in Chile, and so potentially valuable species go unchecked as land is cleared for privatised development projects that have no vested interests in the ecology of the land.

Scaling this up to the country as a whole, it is easy to see what is to blame for the state of Britain’s fungi, and why our habitats now have to be described as “sensitive” and “fragile” so often.

The bottom line here is that our landscapes aren’t being damaged by foragers, they’re being damaged by industry, and it is unfair to end such a fulfilling and healthy activity as foraging because of the actions of corporations. Of course, a lot of ecological damage has already been done, which naturally limits us from foraging as much as people do in other parts of Europe. If done diligently, land reclamation and ecological restoration by conservation organisations could be scaled up to match the pace at which foraging is increasing in popularity.

When Foraging Becomes Conservation

Foraging in Eastern Europe is woven into the very tapestry of culture and economy, and as a result, people actually value having wild forests around them. In other words, there is a cultural incentive to keep the forests alive. In Poland, mushroom picking serves as an important source of additional seasonal income for economically deprived groups in rural areas, like the unemployed and elderly (Łuczaj & Nieroda, 2011), and these people hold a lot of ethnomycological knowledge valuable to science and conservation. Is it any surprise then that Poland, along with other pro-foraging European countries, have some of the last vestiges of wild primeval forests on the continent?

Wild bison can be found in the primeval Białowieża forest of Poland. Photo credit: Andrzej Petryna, Wild Poland.

It seems to me that foragers and conservationists should stop being pitted against one another in the forest and the forum, and instead work towards adapting our current conservation models, teaching foragers to be citizen scientists and stewards.

Traditional models of conservation, which originated in 19th century America, were simple and effective: keep people and industry out. No interference, no disruption. Let wild nature run its course. In many cases, this model served its purpose well, which is why much of conservation today also follows that system. However, as has been pointed out in the brilliant TEDx talk by botanist and conservationist Arthur Haines, this hands-off approach is not a sustainable or entirely effective way of protecting wild nature.

The reason is simple, and falls into the realm of human psychology: people will only protect what they use or have a personal relationship with. To demonstrate one example, think of how defensive a farmer might become when their land or way of life is threatened, by development or badgers or what have you. The loss of a coherent foraging or wildcrafting culture in many parts of the industrialised world has torn people from nature physically and psychologically to the extent that we no longer feel like we are ‘of the land’ or personally identified with a place like people were in the past. That’s why many people nowadays don’t get defensive when ecological disasters like HS2 get the green light from the government.

The great irony of our time is that public interest in nature is at its highest in recent history, yet the erosion of wild ecosystems continues faster than ever before. It is the loss of connection to the land and the forfeiting of accountability that has allowed rampant destruction to take place. Public support of foraging can at least begin the process of reconnection and restoration, which has a chance of rekindling our lost culture of wildcrafting, widening the base of support for conservation organisations. More interest in fungi potentially means more interest in mycology as a career choice for future generations, which is greatly needed given that fungal conservation is severely lagging behind plant and animal conservation.

Fortunately, the idea of sustainable foraging is not new, so we don’t have to start on step one. The Association of Foragers was established in 2015 to promote sustainability and ecological stewardship, and have outlined five key principles of responsible foraging on their website. In addition, Target 11 of the Saving the Forgotten Kingdom: A Strategy for the Conservation of the UK’s Fungi by the Fungus Conservation Forum is to “encourage sustainable harvesting” and to improve awareness and promotion of existing codes of practice. Sharing these principles amongst our foraging communities is essential.

Finally, foraging can no longer be taught without including the conservation element. Teachers and guides have a major responsibility in ensuring that the public learn about conservation issues, vulnerable species, and sensitive habitats before they attempt to learn how to forage. As a result, conservation charities will likely see greater support from more people who want to engage with nature more closely.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

I hope to see a future Britain in which foraging is celebrated in our culture, where wildlife is allowed to thrive in healthy abundance, giving people a strong sense of cultural identity and connection to place. For now, if you enjoy foraging, the the single most important thing you can do is to understand the habitat and its history before you embark. We need to know our landscapes intimately to ensure they’re big and intact enough to handle harvesting, or if they are homes to ecologically important species we should be mindful of. That, at least, is my vision for the near term whilst conservationists and foragers alike begin crafting detailed region-specific guidelines for sustainable foraging.

Perhaps a bit more far-out is the possibility that future livelihoods and economies that derive a larger portion of their value from wildcrafting activities will incentivise landowners to release their land from intensive agriculture, turning them into wildlife reserves. Former agricultural lands are known to bounce back surprisingly quickly, as was demonstrated by Isabella Tree in Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm, and even the recent restoration of the Dover clifftops from arable land into wildflower-rich meadows by the National Trust.

Poppies on the white cliffs of Dover. Photo credit: The National Trust.

So, is foraging harmful for nature? Not if it is for personal use by people who understand and respect their local ecology. However, what actually is harmful for nature is our increasing disconnection with it, allowing industry to continue degrading our land whilst profiting from the public’s ignorance. Perhaps its time to settle the disputes between foragers and conservationists, and unite to address the real causes of wildlife loss. The only way forward, in my opinion, is to stop alienating people from wild nature, and to construct conservation models that incorporate human activity as another natural process. Only when the internal arguments end will we have the headspace to properly direct our efforts to protecting our incredible natural heritage.

Photo credit: F. Wiktor @fabianwiktor on Unsplash.

References

  1. The Daily Mail. Forests stripped of mushrooms: Black market gangs cash in on best crop in years by selling them to traders supplying top hotels and restaurants. 07.10.2013. <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2449206/Forests-stripped-mushrooms-gangs-best-crop-years.html> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  2. Express. Eastern European mushroom mobs: New Forest is stripped bare by fungi rustlers. 16.07.2015. <https://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/591570/Gangs-mushrooms-black-market-New-Forest-Eastern-European-fungi> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  3. Evening Standard. Ruthless foragers strip Epping Forest of vital mushrooms that help sustain wildlife and protect trees. 06.11.2019. <https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/ruthless-foragers-targeting-epping-forest-for-vital-mushrooms-that-help-sustain-wildlife-and-protect-a4279706.html> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  4. Wright, J., 2010. Hedgerow: River Cottage Handbook (Vol. 7). A&C Black.
  5. Egli, S., Peter, M., Buser, C., Stahel, W. and Ayer, F., 2006. Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests–results of a long-term study in Switzerland. Biological conservation129(2), pp.271-276.
  6. The Wildlife Trusts. Farmland. <https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/habitats/farmland> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  7. Standing, G., 2019. Plunder of the commons: A Manifesto for sharing Public wealth. Penguin UK.
  8. Lilleskov, E.A., Kuyper, T.W., Bidartondo, M.I. and Hobbie, E.A., 2019. Atmospheric nitrogen deposition impacts on the structure and function of forest mycorrhizal communities: a review. Environmental Pollution246, pp.148-162.
  9. Dahlberg, A., Genney, D.R. and Heilmann-Clausen, J., 2010. Developing a comprehensive strategy for fungal conservation in Europe: current status and future needs. Fungal Ecology3(2), pp.50-64.
  10. Monbiot, G., The Guardian. The shocking waste of cash even leavers won’t condemn. 21.06.2016 <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/21/waste-cash-leavers-in-out-land-subsidie> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  11. Fundacion Fungi. 2020. <https://ffungi.org/> [Accessed 21.07.2020]
  12. Łuczaj, Ł. and Nieroda, Z., 2011. Collecting and learning to identify edible fungi in southeastern Poland: age and gender differences. Ecology of Food and Nutrition50(4), pp.319-336.
  13. Haines, A. What’s wrong with our conservation paradigm? | Arthur Haines | TEDxHartford 12.12.2018. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-neSMw_PXo>
  14. STOP HS2, THE NATIONAL CAMPAIGN AGAINST HIGH SPEED RAIL 2. <http://stophs2.org/> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  15. Plantlife & Fungus Conservation Forum. Saving the Forgotten Kingdom: A Strategy for the Conservation of the UK’s Fungi: 2008-2015. Plantlife International. October 2008. ISBN: 1-904749-94-1. <https://www.plantlife.org.uk/application/files/5914/8240/8859/Saving_the_forgotten_kingdom_PDF.pdf> [Accessed 18.07.2020]
  16. The Association of Foragers. 2019. <https://foragers-association.org/principles>
  17. Tree, I., 2018. Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm. Pan Macmillan.
  18. Morris, S. The Guardian. Dover clifftops 'buzzing with wildlife' after National Trust takeover. 04.07.2020. <https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jul/04/dover-clifftops-buzzing-with-wildlife-after-national-trust-takeover> [Accessed 18.07.2020]

Under every footstep of healthy soil lie 300 miles of mycelial threads.

Almost every plant on Earth is infused with living fungal cells throughout its tissues.

30% of the Earth’s soil-based carbon is fungal biomass, and the total number of species of fungi outweigh the total number of plant species as much as 12 to 1.

Fungi have been found in every environment, across every continent on the planet, from the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, to the bitterly cold deserts of Antarctica. With species estimates ranging from 1.5 million to as many as 5.1 million, we can safely say that in the game of survival and adaptation, fungi are playing their cards right. But in this time of ecological dysregulation, when, on average, 150-200 species of plants and animals go extinct each day, how are the members of this kingdom of life faring?

Lichenomphalia altoandina, a new species of basidiolichen discovered in Chile, capable of withstanding extremely high levels of salt and drought. Photo credit: RBG Kew

Much has been said of the threat of extinction of endangered flora and fauna - valuable medicinal plants such as ginseng, as well as the iconic giant pandas, snow leopards, and blue whales that the public generally associates with wildlife conservation. Not much has been said of the third element in this triad - the funga. Simply put, the amount of attention given to this kingdom of life is disproportionate when considering that fungi are keystone species underlying every ecosystem and play vital roles in nutrient cycling, and unfortunately, they too are threatened.

Conservation

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been serving as an inventory for the conservation status of plants, animals, and fungi since 1964, documenting the vulnerable, the endangered, and the outright extinct in a report known as the IUCN Red List. The most recent Red List gives an interesting glimpse into how much attention has been paid to fungi.

As of 2018, there are 25,452 species of plants whose status has been officially evaluated, in addition to 68,054 species of animals, and as for fungi…  a mere 56 species have been given recognition. Compare this to the total number of estimated species on Earth quoted in the first paragraph, and you will see a glaring problem.

Sarcodon fuscoindicus, a stunning mushroom, threatened and under a federal conservation plan in NW USA. Photo credit: Noah Siegel

Now, this number isn’t low because fungi are immune to ecological disruption, it is low because very little attention has been put on fungi in the first place. The good news is that much work is being done by conservationists, mycologists, and the IUCN across the world to gain a more accurate perspective. Whilst red-listing isn’t as prolific outside of Europe, many mainland European countries such as Poland, Germany, Switzerland, and Sweden are mobilising their efforts to document fungal populations in earnest.

However, their findings do paint a bleak picture. Air pollution, climate change, the clear-cutting of ancient forests, and the nitrification of soils is contributing to significant declines in native species of fungi - mushrooms included. In fact, studies show that at least 10% of European macrofungi are under threat of extinction.

Deforestation - one of the main reasons why fungi are in decline.

If the rate of deforestation, and the ill-management of tree plantations and dead wood debris is anything to go by, many more fungi will be threatened with habitat loss and starvation, and the shockwave of consequences will be felt deep in our lives too.

Closer to a solution

To illustrate why fungal conservation ought to be more prominent in our collective conversations, let’s take the example of the Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus), a threatened medicinal fungus here in the UK. To anyone who has ever come across this mushroom in the wild and saw this snow-white ball of filaments cascading downwards like pom-poms high up in the branches of old beech trees knows the gentle beauty, and almost alien nature of this fungus.

Lion's Mane (Hericium erinaceus) - a threatened medicinal mushroom with a lot of potential.

Considered a gourmet mushroom that tastes like lobster, its fruiting body also bestows medicinal benefits to its consumer from the neuro-regenerative compounds it contains. These compounds - known as Nerve Growth Factors - have been shown to stimulate nerve cell growth and improve cognitive impairment in humans, as well as reversing the effects of amyloid plaque formation in the brain (a symptom of Alzheimer’s disease) in animal trials. As the medical industry braces itself for a rise in Alzheimer’s cases from the baby boomer generation in the coming years, much is stirring as to how this plaque-ridden problem is going to be handled, but precious fungi such as Lion’s Mane may help bring us closer to a solution.

Bear in mind, this is only one example of an important mushroom that is slipping through the biosphere’s fingers. There are still dozens of known, and countless unknown mushrooms with medicinal properties that humans haven’t even begun to research. What fungal treasures have we lost in the last few decades? What medical, agricultural, or ecological revolutions are we letting slide into oblivion without so much as a thought or consideration of their existence? We can no longer afford to ignore the fungi.

Our Kinship with Fungi

On September 13th, 2018, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day symposium at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and the theme of it was the State of the World’s Fungi. This was in celebration of the release of a new report - the first of its kind - on the global status of fungi, and it paints a picture of a hidden fungal world that interpenetrates daily human life.

From our evolutionary kinship to fungi, to their everyday use in the production of foods, medicines, and industrial enzymes, the quiet ubiquity of fungi is showcased brilliantly through this report, and the symposium itself was nothing short of awe-inspiring. With expert mycologists from across the globe gathering in one place to share their passion for these organisms, it became clear to me that mycology is a megascience waiting for its time to shine.

Basidiomycete fungi. Photo credit: Martyn Ainsworth, RBG Kew

This report, and the mycological work at the Botanical Gardens represents a sea change in our view of ecology, and the roles that fungi play in weaving the circle of life. The mycophobia that has been present for so many centuries in the Western world is beginning to wane, as more and more citizens are becoming more ecologically aware and mycologically literate.

These elusive creatures are ever-present beneath our feet. They were there long before us, and in their absence, the biosphere would have quickly run out of nutrients to cycle to keep Life flowing. This new view of ecology is becoming more prominent. With this greater perspective comes a greater responsibility for us, as stewards of the land, to nurture and protect these organisms, not by isolating ourselves from wildlife but by playing integral parts in it through simple, yet positive actions that create habitats for creatures on which we rely.

Photo credit: RBG Kew

Since originally posting this article on the 10th November 2018, I have enrolled on the Plant and Fungal Taxonomy, Diversity and Conservation master’s course in collaboration with Kew Gardens and Queen Mary University of London, after picking up a leaflet for it at the State of the World’s Fungi Symposium. For any budding botanists, mycologists, ecologists, and naturalists looking to create a career in what I believe to be one of the most important subjects of our time, I highly recommend you consider applying for this brilliant, challenging, and inspiring course.

References

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  11. Ma, Bing-Ji , Jin-Wen Shen, Hai-You Yu, Yuan Ruan, Ting-Ting Wu & Xu Zhao, 2010. "Hericenones and erinacines: stimulators of nerve growth factor (NGF) biosynthesis in Hericium erinaceus." Mycology: An International Journal on Fungal Biology. 1(2): 92-98.
  12. Mori, K., Inatomi, S., Ouchi, K. Azumi, Y and Tuchida T. 2009. "Improving effects of the mushroom Yamabushitake (Hericium erinaceus) on mild cognitive impairment: a double blinded, placebo controlled clinical trial." Phytother Res. 23:367-372.
  13. Mori, K., Obara, Y., Moriya, T., Inatomi, S., Nakahata, N. 2011. "Effects of Hericium erinaceus on amyloid β(25-35) peptide-induced learning and memory deficits in mice." Biomed Res. 32(1):67-72.
  14. Hawksworth, David L. "Mycology: a neglected megascience." Applied mycology. CABI, Wallingford (2009): 1-16.

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