For 20 years the only thing that caught Brigitte Tee-Hillman as she picked mushrooms in the New Forest was the occasional bramble concealing a chanterelle or cep. But when the long arm of the law reached out for Mrs Tee-Hillman three years ago it started a debate over the legality of mushroom picking which yesterday ended in a hard-earned victory for the 64-year-old businesswoman.
A judge criticised the waste of public money after ruling that the German-born mushroom-picker should not face criminal charges for allegedly "stealing" six and a half kilograms of chanterelles, worth £27, near her home in the Hampshire forest.
The case was brought on behalf of the Forestry Commission after officials took apparent umbrage to her practice of picking mushrooms to be sold to top London hotels and restaurants.
Mrs Tee-Hillman, who has run her wild mushroom supply business since 1976, was arrested by police in November 2002 and her produce confiscated after the commission claimed the gathering of fungi for commercial gain was illegal.
But Judge John Boggis QC, sitting at Bournemouth Crown Court, ruled that whatever the intricacies of civil law surrounding the mushroom trade, Mrs Tee-Hillman should not find herself facing a criminal court.
"These criminal proceedings are wholly inappropriate to a matter of this sort," he said. "I am not dealing with someone up for GBH, or someone dealing in heroin, I'm dealing with a matter which falls for the civil courts. It is wholly inappropriate for public money to be spent on criminal proceedings such as this."
Mrs Tee-Hillman, who has been supplying the Connaught hotel in London with exotic fungi since the late 1970s, pointed out that officialdom had only recently taken against her mushroom-picking business, called Mrs Tee's Wild Mushrooms.
She is cited in a booklet sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as an expert on foraging for wild produce. The publication carried a picture of her picking in the New Forest.
Mrs Tee-Hillman, who lives in Pennington, Hampshire, said: "The case should never have brought in the first place. Instead of fighting me, the Forestry Commission should have employed me because I know more about mushrooms than they do.
"The mushrooms were worth about £27, which is nothing when you think about how much these legal proceedings have cost. But there you are - that's bureaucracy and officialdom gone mad."
The mushroom-seller, who imports high-value fungi from abroad when it is out of season in Britain, said she would argue that her longstanding foraging trips to the New Forest gave her a right in law to continue.
But the Forestry Commission said last night that it would continue its legal fight against Mrs Tee-Hillman by switching its proceedings to the civil courts.
A spokesman said the case was being brought on behalf of amateur fungi pickers and the animals that depend on the mushrooms. "Ultimately we are working to safeguard the forest environment by helping sustain the insects and wildlife that depend on the mushrooms, and make sure there's enough for everyone to enjoy."Reuse content