THE FORESTRY Commission has been accused of whipping up tensions between foragers and members of the public over the picking of mushrooms in the New Forest.

The conservation authority has put up controversial signs implying mushroom picking is completely banned in the national park.

In fact foraging for fungi that is for personal consumption is perfectly legal, unlike commercial picking which isn't allowed.

But the new 'misleading' signage that has gone up around the New Forest carries an image of a mushroom in a circle with a cross going through which states 'no picking'.

Pickers fear that well-meaning members of the public will confront foragers if they encounter them removing fungi from the forest floor.

And the concern is that any such confrontation could mushroom into a violent incident.

The warning comes two years after the Forestry Commission was accused of spying on pickers to make sure they took home their permitted allowance of mushrooms.

It was revealed officials even kept a dossier that included the names, addresses and descriptions of foragers.

Daniel Butler, a professional forager who runs mycology courses at Aberystwyth University in Wales and regularly visits the New Forest, said: "The Forestry Commission has just put up new signage in the New Forest which basically says 'commercial picking is banned, don't pick any mushrooms' with a circle and a line through it like a road sign.

"Seeing that you would think it is illegal to pick in the New Forest but it doesn't actually say that.

"The problem with this signage is well-meaning members of the public might think they have good intentions and try to stop someone picking.

"Things can escalate out of control very quickly.

"That's very dangerous ground and that's what upsets me about the Forestry Commission's position - they're whipping up the public to do their dirty work and creating animosity."

Mr Butler said he knew of two female foragers who were recently approached in a very confrontational manner by a member of the public.

Another forager, who didn't want to be named, said he no longer felt it was safe to take his young daughter out with him in case of confrontation.

In recent years the New Forest is said to have been targeted by an army of commercial mushroom pickers who collect huge amounts to sell to

trendy London restaurants.

Commercial picking is against the law under the Theft Act 1968, with anything over 1.5kg considered commercial.

The Forestry Commission claims that leaving fungi unpicked means it can continue to contribute to the forest's 'fragile' eco-system.

But, according to Mr Butler, there is insufficient evidence to suggest mushroom picking does any harm.

He said: "There have been several academic studies and there is nothing to suggest mushroom picking causes any damage.

"It's essentially a fruiting body from a mycelium that's underground, it's very comparable to blackberry picking, which no one harrasses people over.

"Picking blackberries does not harm the bramble and picking mushrooms doesn't do any damage to the mycelium."

A spokesman for the Forestry Commission said they are asking people not to pick mushrooms and their staff will be out in the New Forest in the coming weeks to 'monitor' the situation.

The spokesman said: "Autumn is usually the height of the growth cycle for mushrooms, but with the extremely dry weather we've experienced over recent months less fungi may have emerged so far this season.

"We continue to actively encourage people to get out into the New Forest and to enjoy seeing the autumn spectacle of fungi, we just ask that they don't pick.

"Forestry Commission staff in the New Forest continue to monitor the level of picking, their observations help us to better understand if there has been a positive effect on the number of reported commercial and persistent pickers in the New Forest."