A RARE fungus has been cut down from the New Forest - sparking a police investigation.

The rare fungus was removed from its natural habitat in the New Forest, causing the Forestry Commission to alert Hampshire Police.

It is feared the protected fungi, Hericium erinaceus, may have been mistakenly taken to be used in cooking.

Restaurateurs are suspected of foraging fungi in the New Forest to use in their menus.

A Forestry Commission spokeswoman said: "I can confirm that three specimens of the rare fungi, Hericium erinaceus, were cut and removed from their natural habitat and we've referred this matter to the local police and conservation body Natural England.

"Taking of rare schedule 8 species from anywhere by anyone is illegal and incurs high penalties under CPS guidance and is a matter for the wildlife crime unit.

"This is not the first time that this particularly rare species has been taken from woodlands in the New Forest."

She added: "The New Forest has a wide range of local, national and international protections, meaning the New Forest is globally important for its landscape, nature conservation, heritage and recreation.

"However, it's notable that New Forest is also one of the most important designated sites in England for fungi, with a lot of endangered species, which can easily be mistaken for varieties that are picked for eating.

"Locally, the Forestry Commission has been campaigning for many years, asking people not to pick fungi in the New Forest and these recent incidents highlight that endangered fungi are still being collected, which impacts on the enjoyment of others who wish to study, admire or photograph their many forms."

A Hampshire police spokesman said: "On November 13 officers were contacted by the Forestry Commission who reported large quantities of fungi being taken from the New Forest.

"The matter is under investigation."