Epping forest is one of England’s most ancient forests, a stunning beacon of nature which has been growing since the Neolithic times. The huge 9,500 acre wild, which straddles the border between London and Essex, is home to 500 rare and endangered species – an extraordinary quantity. These days, it is protected by the City of London Corporation and is recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation due to the exceptionally diverse array of flora and fauna that live and grow within its borders. Settled between the lush valleys of the rivers Lea and Boding, Epping is a sprawling area of woodlands, grasslands, rare bogs, springy fields of native heather and interlacing streams. In a country where 50% of our wildlife has already been wiped out, sanctuaries like Epping are more essential than ever. Yet the heart of this forest is being threatened by, of all things, the restaurant industry.

Yes, you read that right. Since 2014, commercial pickers paid by the high-end restaurants of London have been sneaking into the undergrowth of Epping forest and ripping huge hauls of fungi and mushrooms out of the earth. Thankfully, mushrooms are protected under the Epping byelaws, and violators are being fined anywhere from £30 to £80, as well as threatened with legal action. Thus far, eighteen mushroom-traffickers have been prosecuted, the latest case involving park wardens uncovering a 49kg cargo of mushrooms that was about to be sold.

It is crucial that this practice stops as these organisms are the life and heart of this ecosystem. The reason why can be found underground, in the ‘roots’ of fungi: fine laceworks of threads known as ‘mycelium’ which connect all the plants of the forest. Mushrooms use these systems to communicate with trees and shrubs via chemical signals in a huge network which shares information and even nutrients. I believe scientists refer to it as the ‘wood wide web’, and if they do not, it should be suggested to them immediately. Mushrooms also break down natural materials releasing particular nutrients into the soil that would otherwise be lost. Finally, mushrooms are a delicious foodsource for a rare species of black deers only found in Epping, as well as a multitude of insects.

With the entire ecosystem relying on the little mushrooms on the forest floor, uprooting them causes serious damage, and in order to protect Epping forest we must all play our part in encouraging passion and exploration of Britain’s wild areas.