Maurice Rotheroe

Journalist and ambassador for fungi
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The Independent Online

Maurice Raymond Rotheroe, journalist and naturalist: born Smethwick, Staffordshire 16 January 1934; deputy features editor, Reveille 1955-64; feature and leader writer, Birmingham Evening Mail 1964-82; assistant editor, Cambrian News 1987-97; Conservation Officer, British Mycological Society 1996-2001; married 1962 Shelagh McNally (one son; marriage dissolved), 1989 Penny David; died Carmarthen 3 November 2005.

Maurice Rotheroe was a self-taught naturalist who became one of the leading experts on wild fungi. Over 30 years, he was a well-known and popular figure on fungus forays organised by the British Mycological Society and others. As a professional journalist, he was an able communicator who wrote exceptionally clear and readable lectures and reports. Much of the current popularity of mushrooms and toadstools, as well as concern for their preservation, can be attributed to his dedication and enthusiasm as a kind of ambassador for the fungi.

Maurice Rotheroe was of Welsh descent on his father's side while his mother was from the Black Country near Birmingham. Hence Maurice regarded himself as a Brummie as well as an honorary Welshman. He attributed his love of language and literature to his mother Gwen's influence: she was a rich source of Black Country sayings and able to recite, or sometimes sing, large chunks of poetry from memory.

Educated at James Watt Technical School in Smethwick and interested in science, Maurice Rotheroe was briefly apprenticed as a chemical engineer at the ICI works at Oldbury, Gloucestershire. After two years, he chose to serve his National Service in the RAF.

Rotheroe soon decided that his future lay not with chemicals but in journalism and used his time in the RAF to learn short-hand and typing skills. In 1955 he began to contribute film and theatre reviews for several provincial newspapers as well as serving a stint on Fleet Street as deputy features editor for Reveille. His happiest period as a journalist was as a chief feature and leader writer for the Birmingham Evening Mail, where he remained for 20 years, after moving from London with his first wife Shelagh and baby son Adam.

There he took an interest in community relations and became a member of the Bishop of Birmingham's liaison committee on community relations. In 1974 he was named Provincial Journalist of the Year by the Indian Association of the UK. After moving to Wales, working part-time for the Cambrian News, he received the Hamlet Trophy as Welsh Newspaper Reporter of the Year in 1988.

Rotheroe's interest in mycology began in the 1960s when he took part in the ambitious plan to survey the fungus flora of Warwickshire - chosen as a typical English county but also as a noted centre of mycological expertise. Identifying fungi was made difficult due to the lack of suitable books and field guides in English. Rotheroe learned his craft by attending forays and also extra-mural courses at Birmingham University. With a retentive memory for the tiny, often microscopic details that distinguish one toadstool from another, he became a noted expert on two particularly difficult groups, Coprinus (the ink-caps) and Russula (brightly coloured woodland toadstools sometimes known as crumble-caps).

At the age of 50, he interrupted his journalistic career to enrol as a mature student at Aberystwyth University, though he first had to study for the required A-levels at technical college. His first marriage had broken up in the 1970s and at Aberystwyth he met Penny David, whom he married in 1989. In 1987 he obtained an Upper Second honours degree in botany. His dissertation on sand-dune fungi necessitated fortnightly visits to the nearby dunes at Ynyslas over a full year. Few British mycologists had worked on this apparently unpromising habitat before and Rotheroe was soon recognised as a European authority, speaking and writing papers on dune fungi for international conferences and symposia.

Unfortunately there were no permanent job openings in mycology. However, Rotheroe was able to make a second career surveying sand-dunes for their mycological interest and subsequently writing reports on them for government conservation agencies and the Ministry of Defence. His work later broadened into natural grasslands, stimulated by the incredible diversity of species he was finding on the old lawns of country houses.

Rotheroe devised a scale of conservation importance by using certain fungi, including fairy-clubs, earth-tongues and the colourful waxcaps, as indicator species. This process, known as the "CHEG" scale from the initial letters of certain key species, is now used throughout Britain to survey the fungi of grasslands. Several places first surveyed by Rotheroe are now protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

Rotheroe played a leading part in persuading conservation bodies to take due regard of the needs of fungi - which, as he pointed out, with at least 12,000 species in Britain, outnumber all the green plants put together. For five years from 1996, he served as the British Mycological Society's Conservation Officer. He also became the consultant mycologist to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales as well as a member of the executive of the European Council for the Conservation of Fungi. He was co-organiser of an international symposium on fungal conservation in the 21st century held at Kew in 2000. He was also co-editor of Fungal Conservation, Issues and Solutions (2001), the first and so far only textbook about the conservation of British fungi.

Maurice Rotheroe looked much younger than his real age. Though he suffered from periodic bouts of paralysing anxiety and depression, the memory of many of his colleagues is of a friendly and generous man, always willing to share his knowledge and good at inspiring newcomers to take up mushrooming.

Peter Marren