Looking for some French champignons for your cheesy mushroom canapés? Here’s some advice: don’t pick them on French soil—you might wind up beaten and bloody, or even shot.
Until recently, property owners in France would generally let their neighbours pick mushrooms for personal use, and anyone could harvest the fungi on public property. But that’s been changing since 2006, when a worldwide shortage caused mushroom prices to soar, and money-hungry gangs started flooding France’s forests. They aggressively steal tons of truffles, ceps and chanterelles, harming ecosystems and robbing forest owners of estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Whereas casual and professional pickers are normally careful to reduce their environmental impact, the gangs damage undergrowth with rakes, harm future harvests by picking underdeveloped mushrooms, and take away truckloads. The problem is at its worst in the south, where people from all over France, Italy and Spain travel to make over $5,000 a week gathering and selling mushrooms to restaurants on the black market. “Some villages only have the forests for income,” says Odile Champion, president of the Société Mycologique de Vaucluse in Avignon. “Forests are sometimes ravaged and owners lose the benefits of their produce.”
And the gangs aren’t peaceful. Spurred by prices of almost $50 a kilogram, they’ve been getting into violent fights with landowners, and residents have reported hearing gunshots. To combat the problem, some municipalities are adopting licence requirements and instituting maximum allowances for daily picking, while many landowners are hiring security guards. The crackdown may prove to be effective against the gangs, but it’s also keeping locals out of the woods. “The restrictions are unpleasant—some of our favourite places are now closed to the public,” says Champion. “Now we find mushrooms around our house, where we aren’t afraid of having our tires slashed.”