A YEAR after mistakenly eating highly toxic mushrooms, a Scottish aristocrat and a famous author are on the kidney transplant list and undergoing intensive medical care while they wait.
The ill-fated mushroom gathering trip has blighted the lives of Sir Alistair Gordon-Cumming, chief of the Cumming clan, and his brother-in-law Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer. Now the pair are backing calls from the expert that finally diagnosed their illness for more fungi specialists to be trained in Scotland.
Professor Roy Watling says that lives are being put at risk by a critical shortage of the specialists able to identify killer mushrooms in the countryside. Watling is still called on regularly by hospitals across Scotland and the rest of the UK to identify samples of fungi eaten by people who have become seriously ill – even though he retired ten years ago.
He insists that there is a crisis of expertise in his field and that people could die if replacements are not trained to take his place. With foraging for wild food on the increase, the danger to the public is rising.
Although fatalities are rare, last year a mushroom hunter on the Isle of Wight died after she ate the death cap (Amanita phalloides). Early diagnosis is crucial to successful treatment.
Sir Alistair said he thought the lack of expertise highlighted by Watling was shocking. "It is a worrying situation to have just one man left in Scotland. His knowledge is going to vanish and once he's gone, he's gone."
Statistics show that the number of fungal taxonomists – as the specialists are known – has declined by 90 per cent in the UK since 1992 and no university currently offers courses in the subject.
Prof Watling, who is 71, said: "There should be people replacing me because I won't exist forever. To rely on me at my age is ridiculous. In fact, it could be a matter of life or death.
"There are more and more people wanting to eat wild mushrooms because we see books on 'food for free' and programmes on television and people want to try it out themselves.
"Unfortunately it's not as easy as that. It's something I call mushroom roulette. If they are not fatally poisonous they can still give you awful stomach problems."
Sir Alistair, 55, who ate the wrongly-identified mushrooms after a hunt on his Altyre Estate, near Forres, described the situation as "extremely worrying". Both remain on the waiting list for kidney transplants a year after the incident and have to undergo regular dialysis. Although their wives, Louise and Charlotte, also ate the mushrooms, they were not as badly affected.
Sir Alistair told Scotland on Sunday he regretted every day his decision to eat the mushrooms picked from his estate.
"We have mushroom books and my wife would quite often go and pick mushrooms and bring them back to the book to identify them," he said.
"However, on this occasion we thought it looked exactly like something else. The price of that mistake for my brother-in-law and myself has been pretty catastrophic. However, at least we are still here. People do die."
After eating the mushrooms, Deadly Webcap, which they mistook for chanterelles, Sir Alistair suffered symptoms similar to food poisoning and was rushed to Dr Gray's Hospital in Elgin for emergency treatment. Both he and Evans now need 15 hours of dialysis every week just to stay alive.
Sir Alistair said: "I've got complete kidney shutdown. I'm in a rut. Modern medicine is quite capable of dealing with me – but they can't sort me out. It's very constricting."
Mushrooms release toxins that lead to different symptoms – some cause kidney failure, others affect the central nervous system and others have poisons that attack the liver.
This means identification is crucial because the treatment required differs. The rare mushroom eaten by Sir Alistair and his group – Latin name Cortinarius speciosissimus – was identified by Watling, a mycologist for 40 years who has written textbooks on the subject.
But although he was contacted by his former employer, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, to help identify the species, there was a two-day delay. Watling is convinced that Sir Alistair and Evans could have been saved years of dialysis if he had been replaced after he retired.
"If somebody had been able to identify them within a few hours of them eating it, or getting to hospital, maybe we would have been able to save their kidneys," he said.
"If you know what the fungus has been eaten then you can advise what treatment to give. So it is critical that you have somebody who is able to identify them."
Plant conservation charity Plantlife Scotland is calling for more resources for mycology courses, which is not taught either in schools or higher education. Conservation manager Deborah Long described the situation as a "crisis".
Dr David Minter, an associate of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, said: "It's an enormous problem and it's one that really worries the very, very few remaining mycologists. It is not part of the National Curriculum. Kids come out of school not knowing what a fungus is."
He said there was no funding to replace mycologists who retired. "Expertise has been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that we are currently losing more mycologists than we are able to replace.
"Governments and scientific institutions need to be convinced of the severity of the situation and persuaded to help turn this around while we are still in time to halt potentially devastating results."