Harvesting wild food
Thanks to the work of authors like Richard Mabey and television survival shows presented by Bear Grylls and Ray Mears, food foraging is being promoted as an improving outdoor activity. It’s worth noting though that the word ‘Forage’ has its origins in plundering and pillaging. Harvesting would be a more appropriate term to use as it’s not in anyone’s interests to plunder what is available in an uncontrolled, disrespectful and unsustainable way.
Wild food harvesting is something we can integrate into our existing food sourcing to add variety and diversity into our diets.
There are some considerations to bear in mind when harvesting wild food.
- Wild food should not be seen as an unrestricted natural larder and free alternative to the modern supermarket. Apart from the ecological implications, there just isn’t enough land for the entire population of Britain to live a hunter-gatherer existence. Great care and consideration must be given to wild food harvesting to protect the environment.
- Don’t strip the food resource bare. Only pick a small amount from each plant in order to preserve that plant. This is especially important with annual species where removal of all seeds and flowers in one year will largely result in decimating or possibly even eliminating that plant species over following years.
- Don’t keep picking from the same area. Try and vary the location in order to minimise one’s impact on the local environment. This is especially important in urban areas where others might be picking too.
- Don’t pick from protected areas such as wildlife reserves and areas of special scientific interest (SSSI) some of the endangered species that are protected on that site may be totally reliant on the same food plants that you might pick.
- Try to use a knife to cut the plant rather than just tearing away the stalks because this damages the plant and could cause the plant to become diseased. This is particularly true of perennials and shrub-like plants.
It is not against the law to carry a knife provided it conforms to certain restrictions. It is legal to carry a folding pen knife with a cutting blade of not more than three inches.
Generally the following restrictions apply. No knife can be carried on any school premises (offensive weapons Act 1996) It must not be an automatic or gravity opened flick or butterfly knife (offensive weapons Act 1959) and it must not be disguised as something innocent (Criminal Justice Act 1988) Note that any knife that isn’t banned or has a blade over three inches e.g a hunting knife can be carried in public, but you must have a lawful reason for doing so (section 139 Criminal Justice Act 1988)
- If you can’t properly and unequivocally identify a plant then don’t eat it! There are many edible plants that resemble inedible, poisonous, and potentially lethal species.
- Always consider potential hazards and not just the physical ones like falling into a ditch or being injured by thorns, but also hazards like pollutants. Consider historical land uses and modern-day blights like fly-tipping, waste dumping and road and agricultural run-off which can lead to toxic contamination.
- For the really common wild food plants aka weeds, you can easily take a few plants or seeds and sow them in your own garden where they’re very likely to grow well and minimise your impact on the countryside.
There’s sometimes a rather over-simplified understanding of wild food, like you go out, pick some food and bring it home to eat. The reality is that it’s slightly more difficult than that. Many of the plants featured in the books are often not so easily found, and this is especially so if they are outside their prime flowering season. The local geology and climate of your area can have a pronounced impact on what grows where and how well they’re likely to grow. Rural biodiversity has been altered and in some cases decimated by modern agricultural methods.
Searching for and locating wild foods is something learned and understood through practical experience and through personal knowledge of one’s local area.
Gathering wild food isn’t the same as going to the local supermarket. You just don’t turn up and eat.
You need to get to know a particular area, understand the wild ecology and how it possibly varies from site to site. In order to do this, it will be necessary to regularly visit your selected wild food gathering areas. Flowers, leaves and berries may only be available during a short window of time. To be there at the right time requires you to have to regularly visit and understand your chosen site.
If we’re to take from nature’s bounty then it is necessary to understand the relationship between plant and environment if it is to be done in a sustainable and considerate way.
To obtain the greatest benefit from wild foods it helps to develop an understanding of the ecology of the countryside and how it influences what is available and when.
Developing ways of integrating wild foods into one’s life involves a process of learning that includes a commitment to go out into the countryside learning to identify plants throughout their various growth stages through the seasons and learning the different methods available of cooking and preserving the harvested food. A good place to start would be with the most common and abundant plants like Blackberries, Dandelions, Nettles, and Elder.
A way of gaining greater practical knowledge and confidence is to perhaps consider enrolling in a tutor-led foraging, bushcraft, and herbal course offering hands-on and practical exercises. When you feel ready to begin exploring your local area, then firstly pick an area. Ideally, this is access to the countryside. An urban environment such as a town or city carries a greater risk of toxins and contaminants.
In order to fully understand plants, you’ll need regular access to your chosen area so you’ll gain knowledge of the diversity of plants and fruits over the year which will then allow you to harvest them at just the right time.
The diversity of available plants is governed by current land uses especially if they’ve been sprayed in accordance with modern agricultural methods. Many species have been sprayed out of existence. Plant availability is also dependent upon the type of soil. Some prefer soil acidity and other alkaline. Coastal plants thrive in saltier soil, others like the boggy ground, some like drained soil, etc. It’s a case of gaining that knowledge from your chosen site.
In order to minimise one's impact on the land it is preferable to choose a large area to harvest from, or better still, choose several sites. With experience, it will be possible to harvest from various types of locations like hedgerows, grasslands, woodlands, and even coastal areas if you live near the coast.
As you develop your knowledge of various areas it offers the potential to harvest something of use throughout the year.
The books on the subject of wild food harvesting tend to offer images of beautiful flowering plants in full bloom. However, these plants may only be flowering for a short period of time and so it is most likely that you’ll encounter the plant when it’s not in bloom. To understand and correctly identify the plants it is necessary to see them throughout the different stages of their lifecycles. D oing this will mean requiring you to visit your chosen area regularly.
Another consideration when harvesting wild food from your chosen area is that you are required to access that land legally otherwise you will be committing the civil offense of trespass.
Ways of legal access include Roads, but do bear in mind the risks involved e.g the traffic and the subsequent pollutants. Quiet back roads tend to be safer.
You can gain access to land via public rights of way. Ordnance Survey maps have these marked. Any land these public rights of way paths cross is available, but only the hedgerows that the paths run alongside are accessible.
Certain parts of the countryside are termed Access Land. These, either by agreement or because they’re common land have been opened up for public access. These areas are also marked on ordnance survey maps. Legally if you harvest wild food from Access land you lose the right to access and are then legally subject to trespass laws.
If you happen to know the landowner and able to gain the necessary permission, then you are free to harvest what you like.
All nature reserves and legally protected sites of special scientific interest should be avoided since laws and conditions of access do not usually allow for picking.
Public parks are open and available to the public, but it is worth considering that these areas are likely to have been sprayed.
As your knowledge and understanding of plants develops with experience, you’ll be able to begin picking leaves, fruits, and in some cases, excavating roots.
Due to the historical importance of wild foods, picking them is not a criminal offense. Section 4 subsection 3 of the Theft Act 1968 states clearly that -
A person that picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks unless he does it for reward or for sale or for other commercial purposes. For the purpose of this subsection ‘mushroom’ includes any fungus and plant includes any shrub or tree.
Whilst picking may not be theft, it might be theft if you uproot a shrub or tree and take it away.
Plants that are protected by law or are an endangered species are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Damaging protected plants is a criminal offense. It would be advisable to check which plants are protected under this Act.
Many wild foods can be eaten raw. Others require cooking. For example, young Nettles need to be heated over a flame or placed in boiling water to neutralise the sting, but later in the season, they need to be boiled in order to extract the edible pulp from the indigestible fibre.
To obtain real value from harvested wild foods it is necessary to preserve them. Information on this can be found online or in most of the books on wild foods.
There are no hard and fast rules on what to pick. This is because of the different environments within different localities. There are plants that are more common all over like Dandelions, Elder, and Nettles. Other species are far more difficult to seek out. It’s probably best to begin with the simple ones and how far you progress from there is dependent upon your personal preference to expand your knowledge.
It’s important to bear in mind that for the average person it would not be possible to sustain your entire diet from wild-harvested food alone. What wild food can do is to add diversity to one’s diet. At its most basic level, wild food is a link we can use to understand and enjoy a relationship with nature.