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Wild Mushroom warning for Autumn 'foragers'

Author: 
John Freeman
A poisonous Destroying Angel mushroom.
Photo: Daniel Butler of Fungal Forays
The Health Protection Agency’s poisons experts have issued a wild mushroom safety message as autumn arrives, warning of the potential dangers of fungi foraging for those who don't know the good from the dangerous.

A bumper harvest this year has sounded warning bells for the Agency, who are warning that anyone going mushroom picking needs to be very careful before consuming their crop.

The National Poisons Information Service, which is commissioned by the Health Protection Agency, is sounding the alarm as it receives queries from clinicians needing help treating those who have picked and consumed sometimes dangerously toxic wild mushrooms.

Earlier this month. stories were published in various national newspapers recounting The Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans, disastrous and potentially fatal foraging experience back in 2008. While staying at his brother-in-law’s Scottish estate, the writer and his companions gathered a basket of what they believed to be chanterelles, but which turned out to be deadly webcaps, which look very similar.

The four gastronomes were taken seriously ill and the Daily Mail reported that three of them are only being kept alive with dialysis - two years on, the Evanses and their brother-in-law have almost no kidney function.

Luckily, none of the four children present at the meal (Nick and Charlotte have a six-year-old son, Finlay, and their hosts have three children) wanted to try them - doctors told them later that if they had, it could have killed them.

Luckily, none of the four children present at the meal (Nick and Charlotte have a six-year-old son, Finlay, and their hosts have three children) wanted to try them - doctors told them later that if they had, it could have killed them.

Of course, this alarming story - and there are many more - has to be put into context. Over the whole of the last century there have been two adult deaths from eating wild mushrooms. One was a hippy who was experimenting with fly agaric (which is extremely hallucinogenic) and the other was a Vietnamese woman on the Isle of Wight in 2008 who ate a death cap. Other than that, the only fatalities here are toddlers who are in that phase of exploring the world by putting everything in their mouths - which is not good if it's a death cap or destroying angel.

"Only a few mushrooms will kill you; most will just make you wish you were dead," Phil Daoust, who's a big fan of wild mushrooms, noted in a feature for The Guardian last week. "Species such as the destroying angel, the devil's bolete, the poison pie and the sickener get their names for a good reason."

Death Cap Mushroom photographed by Daniel Butler of Fungal ForaysDeath Cap mushroom. Photo: Daniel Butler of Fungal Forays.
It's thought that the 2010 autumn wild mushroom season began in late August and it is expected to run, in some parts of the UK, for several more weeks. But there are dangers as some types of mushroom are so poisonous they can prove fatal if eaten. At present, those that might be found that are poisonous are the Fly agaric, Panther cap, Destroying angel, the Woolly milk cap and the blue-staining bolete.

"Only a few mushrooms will kill you; most will just make you wish you were dead," Phil Daoust, who's a big fan of wild mushrooms, noted in a feature for The Guardian last week. "Species such as the destroying angel, the devil's bolete, the poison pie and the sickener get their names for a good reason."

Woolly Milk Mushroom photographed by Daniel Butler of Fungal ForaysThe poisonous Woolly Milk Cap mushroom. Photo: Daniel Butler of Fungal Forays.
“Environmental and weather conditions in recent months have resulted in there being a bumper crop of wild mushrooms in many parts of the UK during this mushroom season," notes Professor Simon Thomas, Director of the NPIS unit in Newcastle. "This has encouraged people to forage for wild mushrooms and include these in their diet. 

“It is important to note that the toxins contained within some of the most dangerous varieties of wild mushrooms are generally not destroyed by cooking.

“NPIS receives enquiries from NHS staff each year who are concerned about people who have ingested mushrooms," he added. "Some of these have inadvertently picked and eaten toxic mushrooms and subsequently developed severe symptoms of mushroom poisoning. Very occasionally this has resulted in death, although this has been rare in the UK.

“While many mushrooms growing in the wild are delicious and safe to eat, it is not always easy, even for people with experience, to differentiate between toxic and non-toxic species. NPIS therefore advises that people should not eat mushrooms collected in the wild unless they are familiar with the various species that grow in the UK and are sure that the mushrooms they have collected are safe to eat.”

Most cases involve accidental ingestion of mushrooms by children under ten; these do not usually result in severe symptoms. Enquiries concerning adults often occur after deliberate ingestion of mushrooms collected in the wild.

Already in 2010, NPIS has answered 209 telephone enquiries relating to ingestion of mushrooms. During the corresponding periods of previous years there were 123 enquiries (2009) and 147 mushroom enquiries (2008).  The numbers known to involve adults were 63 (2010), 33 (2009) and 42 (2008).

Dr John Cooper, director of the HPA’s Centre for Radiation, Chemicals and Environmental Hazards, which commissions NPIS, said: “Foraging for wild food can be great fun. But people need to be aware that when it comes to mushrooms there can be very real risks to health involved and think carefully about what they are doing.”

Tips on  for foragers  include:
  • Make sure you can identify the fruit, leaves or mushroom that you've found. Use several features to be sure (check leaf, flower, berry colour and shape, season, and so on). Most of us can spot a blackberry but mushrooms are much more tricky. If you're unsure, don't eat it.
  • Do wash your harvest well, wherever you have collected it.
  • Don’t allow children to pick or eat wild food unsupervised.
  • Don't eat an unhealthy looking plant or fruit – if it appears burnt, bruised or has any sign of mould, for example.
  • Don't eat plants and berries growing on old industrial sites, busy roadside verges or where the ground is visibly contaminated with oil or ash.
  • Do keep a sliver of mushroom, berry or leaf aside so it can later be identified if you do have a stomach upset.
If you go foraging, only take what you need so that there is enough of the plant left to reproduce. Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to uproot any wild plant without the permission of the owner or occupier of the land. It is also illegal to pick, uproot, collect the seed from, or sell, any of particularly rare or vulnerable species.  The current list can be found on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.

• A full list of both edible and poisonous autumn mushrooms can be found at www.wildmushroomsonline.co.uk/Autumn-Mushroom/index.php

• Wild Mushrooms Online UK: www.wildmushroomsonline.co.uk

Fungal Forays: Mushroom Safaris in Wales
Special thanks to Daniel Butler at Fungal Forays for kindly providing the photographs used in this article, which are his copyright

How to Pick Wild Mushrooms: article by Phil Daoust in The Guardian

• Guidance on wild food foraging on the Food Standard Agency’s website www.food.gov.uk/news/newsarchive/2004/sep/forage
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