September is a wonderful time of year to get outdoors and do some foraging. As the deciduous leaves turn to
bright yellows and reds, the fruits and berries of many trees and plants begin to ripen and mushrooms, long concealed beneath the earth, finally push up their fruiting bodies across the fields and forest floors of the UK. In spite of the seeming abundance of wild foods at this time of year, there are a few things to consider in order to forage safely, sustainably and with certainty.
When harvesting wild food, it is important to be mindful that wild plants are an essential part of many different animals’ diets. Unlike us, they do not have supermarkets as a means of supplementing their food intake, therefore, as a rule of thumb please consider the following before you harvest:
- Harvest only common plants.
- Check if your plant is rare or scarce before you pick. It may be abundance locally but nationally rare and therefore should be left alone.
- Even if common, take sensitively making sure there is an abundant amount left for other animals or insect to use (and for humans to enjoy!)
There aren’t many poisonous wild plants in the UK compared to the number of edible varieties, HOWEVER, that does not mean that there aren’t any. The UK is host to some very poisonous species of plants and mushrooms that will make you very sick and can even kill you. When harvesting you also need to consider not just if the plant itself could be poisonous but if the environment your plant is growing in is hazardous.
- Plants growing near traffic or footpaths could have picked up pollutants or animal droppings (think dog-walkers)
- Fields where cattle or other livestock waste run-off can pose an e-coli risk.
There may be chemicals or compounds in your foraged foods that are known to have an adverse reaction in some people.
For these reasons, we highly recommend that you take great care where and what you harvest, trying only a small amount of any wild food first.
Taking time to correctly identify your plant before you are going to eat it is absolutely essential. How do you know there isn’t a similar looking plant that is toxic? You can identify your plant by either being with someone who is occupationally competent, (i.e. a botanist or mycologist) who can confirm to you that your plant, berry, fruit or mushroom is what you think it is.
So, how can you be sure that the plant you want to eat is in fact edible? There are many books and websites that are now dedicated to wild food identification and uses but, as a rule of thumb, always cross reference your findings with at least three reliable sources. This is essential due to the occasional variations in appearance across different regions or countries and a photo or illustration will often differ slightly from how a plant or mushroom appears in real life. Unless the book you are reading is in its second or third publication and written by someone very much in the public domain, such as Richard Mabey or Ray Mears, I advise caution here is some authors are willing to take greater ‘risks’ with what they eat than others. By cross referencing their work you will be able to see these discrepancies and act with appropriate caution.
A contraindication is really a pharmaceutical term used to indicate whether a drug or chemical has any adverse effects. It is a useful term to apply to wild food for a variety of reasons. For example, birch leaf tea can be delicious but it’s also known to be a diuretic and this should be taken into consideration if you are already using diuretic medicine or have high blood pressure.
We advocate the SSC rule and by adhering to it whilst foraging for wild foods, you will be well within suggested guidelines for safety, sustainability and certainty.
Sustainably: Is your harvesting of a plant or mushroom SUSTAINABLE? Is there enough of your plant in the area? Is it a protected species?
Safety: Is your plant SAFE from herbicides/insecticides, dog feces and other pollutants or waste products e.g. car fumes, areas where livestock are kept etc.
Certainty: Are you CERTAIN you have identified it correctly? Do not identify a species using only one resource, make sure you use several. Also, don’t assume that if you can eat one part of a plant, that you can also eat the other. For example, you can eat the flowers of Elder but the leaves will make you very sick. DO YOUR RESEARCH!
IF IN DOUBT LEAVE IT OUT!
It is legal to pick the vegetative part of plants, their fruit and flowers from common land if it is for your own consumption, however, check with local by-laws that might contravene this assumption. If you are on private property, essentially you need to have permission from the landowner to pick any part of a plant, however, the law is complicated in this regard.
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Actand Theft Actit is illegal to up-root any plant or pick-to-sell any part of a plant unless you have the landowner’s permission.
Make sure you check your local by-laws first as this right-to-pick, even on common ground, might vary in different locations around the country.
Scottish Access Code and Wild Food
The Access Code says:
“Customary picking of wild fungi and berries for your own consumption is not affected by the legislation. Care for the environment by following any agreed guidance on this activity. However, being on or crossing land or water for the purpose of taking away, for commercial purposes or for profit, anything in or on the land or water is excluded from access rights.”
The Scottish Wild Mushroom Code provides further information on how to collect wild fungi responsibly. https://www.nature.scot/plants-animals-and-fungi/fungi
Go further with Wild things!
Enjoy your foraging, if you would like to find out more why not attend our Wild food course in Forres. For more information and to book a place visit https://wild-things.org.uk/our-events/wild-foods/