RANGERS patrolling the New Forest are on high alert amid claims that commercial mushroom picking is taking place on an industrial scale.

Speakers at the monthly Court of Verderers revealed that gangs are once again raiding the Forest and stripping the area of edible fungi.

One of those involved in the practice is said to have boasted that they can make £5,000 in a single weekend.

Every year mushrooms are targeted by people who flout the civil by-laws by cashing in on the demand from posh hotels and restaurants.

The amount paid varies from year to year but experts say commercial pickers can expect to pocket as much as £50 per kilo.

The Official Verderer, Dominic May, said the problem this year was worse than usual, with activity taking place on what he described as an “industrial scale”.

Mr May said some of the mushrooms were being taken by groups of workers from eastern Europe who were arriving in cars and minibuses.

Speaking after the meeting a Forestry Commission spokesman was unable to confirm the exact size of the problem.

But he stressed that the Commission was in a state of “constant vigilance”.

“Anecdotal information suggests that commercial picking is on the increase and the aftermath of teams of pickers can often be seen,” said the spokesman.

New Forest commons owned by the National Trust have also been targeted in recent years.

A trust spokesman said none of its staff had reported any serious problems so far this autumn but added: “Fungi are an incredibly important part of our natural landscape.

“They are essential to the survival of numerous mammals and insects, including fungus gnats that breed in the fruiting bodies.

“Some fungi depend on other varieties for their existence and some plants need fungi as part of a symbiotic relationship.”

Commercial mushroom picking is banned in the Forest.

The only person allowed to do it is Brigitte Tee-Hillman, pictured left, of Sway Road, Lymington, who won a landmark ruling against the Forestry Commission in 2006 after a four-year legal battle.

In the first case of its kind she was granted a personal licence to collect as many mushrooms as she liked during her lifetime.

Other pickers are allowed to take only enough for personal consumption, which means no more than 1.5kg per visit.

The Commission says anyone found to have collected excessive amounts of fungi will have their haul confiscated.