Gendarmes in central France are advising mushroom-hunters to tell someone when and where they are going out gathering – even if it means revealing their secret picking spots.
It comes after a number of mushroom-hunters have been reported missing in woods, forcing the gendarmerie to deploy considerable resources in the search for them.
The department of Cher published a Facebook statement and was called “Ne perdez pas le nord” (‘Don’t lose track of north’) which roughly translates as ‘keep your wits about you’.
The gendarmerie advises mushroom-hunters to only go into the forest in broad daylight, to take a compass and map with them and to activate GPS on their phones.
They are also encouraged to tell friends or family where they are going, a serious suggestion considering the lengths pickers often go to to avoid giving away their secret spots.
“People do not want to say where they go. The problem is that going in circles gets you lost at some point,” said Stéphane Rousseau, Lieutenant-colonel at Cher gendarmerie and the author of the post.
Mr Rousseau marvelled that the people getting lost were mostly elderly people who, he said, have lived locally for years and should therefore know the environment well.
“These are situations we have encountered quite often. Three elderly people were found lost in a local forest last week,” he added.
This then leads to intervention from the gendarmerie, including the sending of police officers, cars, sniffer dog teams or – in the worst of situations – a helicopter.
The gendarmerie has even gone as far as to recommend hunters without phones or compasses use the technique of the fairytale character Tom Thumb, who leaves a stone behind him every here and there so as to not get lost in the forest.
‘France’s best kept secret’
Mushroom-picking is a popular activity in France, and some pickers refuse to share their favourite spots. This has led to amusement from the general public, with some people saying that the richest picking grounds are ‘France’s best kept secret’.
Secret mushroom spots are – despite the jokes – a very serious matter for some.
“There is a saying around here that we would rather collaborate with the Germans than give away our secret mushroom spot,” said Emmanuel Claverie, a journalist working for French radio France Bleu Périgord.
Part of the department’s economy is centred around cèpes which have achieved ‘divine’ status, he said.
Mr Claverie said he reports on elderly people getting lost in the forest after going on mushroom-picking around two to three times every autumn.
His most recent report was two weeks ago, and covered an 86-year-old who spent the whole night in the forest after having lost the path.
The cèpe has suffered from recurrent droughts and unexpectedly was missing in the forest last summer in Périgord.
“It was the central talking point here,” he said, adding that the subject is so serious that people with licence plates from surrounding regions have reported punctured tyres.
The tradition of secrecy surrounding mushroom hunting took a serious turn when Christophe Boutet, an engineer from the Dordogne region, decided to create a website that would list every of France’s mushroom-picking spots.
The website grew to include around 200 sites, but Mr Boutet stopped the project after receiving too many complaints and threats, seeing every spot added to his map erased systematically.
The interactive map is available here.
Several apps and Facebook groups have piggybacked on Mr Boutet’s work. Apps include Champignouf, Déclic Champi, Seek or iNaturalist, and information can also be found on some Facebook groups bringing together passionate hunters.