I received an email last week from one of my readers; it was concerning the picking of wild garlic bulbs and the legality of such activities. The email got me thinking about just what the law does allow Hunter-gatherers to do and just how we should be looking after our chosen foraging environments.
In the email it was mentioned that it is illegal to pick the bulbs of wild garlic. This is not strictly true, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act it is illegal to dig up a plant by the root, however common it is, unless it is on your own land or you have the landowner’s permission. My favoured wild garlic harvesting spot is on a Friend’s farm and there is more of it than you could shake a stick at.
The other point that was raised was how essential it is to set good sustainable standards where our wild foods are concerned. Quite, I couldn’t agree more. So what are the rules of engagement when it comes to foraging?
As a regular user of the wild larder, I decided to thumb through some of my books to see what the law states. Obviously the hunter-gatherers code of conduct relies upon a certain degree of common sense, most of the published material on protection of wild plants all provide the same information.
The dons of wild food, Richard Mabey and Roger Phillips, both say how important it is to look out for the plants safety just as much as our own. Taking small quantities from several plants rather than stripping one specimen bare, will go a long way to preserving the plant for the future. Likewise, only pick what you need for yourself and when a plant is growing in profusion.
In terms of legality, as long as you have the landowner’s permission (as mentioned above), there are few wild foods that are not available to available to the forager, except in the case of protected species such as cowslip. In the past I have enjoyed a little trespass action, unless you cause damage, trespass remains a civil rather than a criminal offence. Now I am a little more grown up, the days of provoking a “GET OFF MOI LAAAND!” are few and far between, when I shoot, fish or forage I always have permission to do so. This makes for guilt free enjoyment of the chosen activity rather than mooching about looking over your shoulder every few minutes.
I remember back in the day, when I was about 12 or 13, pike fishing near some pheasant woods. My friends and I would get bored with the lack of pike action and head up to the rearing pens armed with that most notorious of childhood weaponry: the Black Widow catapult. I believe we even went as far as buying marbles and ball bearings for ammunition. Wandering in to a rearing pen and knocking off pheasants for the pot seemed a little bit of harmless fun back then, I must confess I cannot help cringing at the stupidity and criminality of it now, but boys will be boys.
Harvesting wild food from public rights of way and parkland is acceptable as long as nothing is uprooted or damaged. Leaves, flowers, fruits, nuts and fungi are available to us all. I decided to drop in and see the head of my local urban gathering hot spot, Battersea Park, to see what they deemed acceptable gathering. Keeping schtum about my avid appreciation for squirrel fishing I met the Chief Parks Officer, Jennifer Ullman. She said that they do not encourage foraging in the park, but if someone were to ask if they might gather a few nettles or pick some elderflower (within reason), she would say ‘we never had this conversation’. So, the Parks tend to turn a blind eye to a little foraging action, however, I was told where the line is drawn in the tale of a couple of old dears that got caught with two bin bags of holly at Christmas, apparently it was for the local church…
Hunter gathering is something that brings us closer to nature and allows us to appreciate just how lucky we are in Britain to have such tasty flora and fauna. It is within all our interests to respect the countryside and take care when harvesting the hedgerows, I would like my children to be able to pick wild garlic, catch an eel from a river and find out what a pignut tastes like. It is unfortunate that in this age of supply and demand, commercial foraging has reared it ugly head, although it is something I do not condone (I feel that if the restaurants want wild food that badly they should go and get it themselves), the majority of wild food suppliers do adhere to the sustainability of the wild plants they gather and go about it in a sensible way.
So there we have the rules of engagement. Please pick carefully and look out for the future of our wild foods! For more information on codes of conduct, here are some links that lay down the law: