Mushroom picker returns to hunting ground

Terry Kirby
Saturday 25 November 2006 01:00

When Hampshire police, acting for the Forestry Commission, arrested Brigitte Tee-Hillman in the New Forest one autumn day in 2002, it might have been wise for both bodies to reflect on what they were getting themselves into.

This is, after all, a woman who once owned the world's largest dog, a great dane called Sir Galahad, who stood more than 7ft on his hind legs. This small but feisty woman, was not about to be stopped from doing what she has done regularly for 30 years.

Dogs are one of her many passions, but the greatest of her passions are the wild mushrooms around her home in the forest. It was the defence of her right to pick as many as she likes and to sell them to hotels and chefs that lay behind her arrest.

After four years of legal battles involving a criminal prosecution for theft, and a civil suit over the right to pick on common land - she won both - she has won a unique licence from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. She can pick wild fungi for life in the forest. As she said when The Independent joined her on her daily foraging trip this week: "At least it means the Forestry Commission aren't always watching me when I have a pee in the forest".

We set off from Gorse Meadow, near Lymington, their guesthouse and mushroom headquarters, with the apron-clad Mrs Tee, 64, at the wheel of her blue Rolls Royce with her husband John in the passenger seat.

Together they recount their battles with bureaucracy: "Thirty-two court appearances before the judge threw the criminal case out. Thirty two!" The judge attacked the waste of public money; John, with relish, adds: "It's cost them nearly a million pounds altogether. I had the letter this morning."

Officialdom sometimes needs her: "The health people in Southampton had these girolles from France they could not identify. They were ticking!" she laughs. "They came from near Chernobyl, they were radioactive!"

As a child in southern Germany, mushrooms were a vital food source in the lean postwar years. She became an air stewardess, married and settled in the New Forest. In the mid-70s, Mrs Tee began picking and eventually selling the mushrooms .

"Mrs Tee's Wild Mushrooms" was doing nicely until 1998 when the Forestry Commission told her not to pick more than the permitted daily 1.5kilos. Several run-ins later, the commission called in the police.

Mrs Tee stops the car, dons her ever-present Barbour and takes a sharp left into the bracken, marching deep into the forest. We are after winter chanterelles, and pied de mouton, or "hedgehog" mushrooms. She begins furiously picking away, nipping the small brown fungi just above the root. "Look," she says, parting the bracken, "they are everywhere. How can the commission say we are depriving the forest, they know nothing. There's enough for everyone."

Heading home, Mrs Tee tells how, come April, she will be searching the verges of this busy road for the coveted St George's mushroom. "I have to keep my bottom facing away from the cars otherwise I will get hit," she roars.

The Rolls comes to a sudden halt. "She does this all the time," says John. And Mrs Tee is off into the woods in search of something that caught her eye: "Sparassis crispa," she cries, a small woman in an apron and a determined look in her eye.

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