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Sustainable Foraging

​I hope this finds you well. We are looking forward to getting courses back up and running when restrictions are lifted. Thank you for your patience, and a huge thank you to customers who have bought gift vouchers during this time. Meanwhile, i hope you find the following blog interesting.

Foraged fare

​In the midst of the current Coronavirus crisis, our dependence on industrialised society and the global production chain is put into sharp focus. Uncertain times lead many of us to think about how we can be more self-sufficient and localised. How can can we rely less on the supermarket? How we can have less impact on our planet?

Foragers on a course with Leon

Bushcraft can be one of the more extreme forms of self-reliance. In it's purest form, tribal groups live in balance with nature, surviving with just what is around them. Obviously no one is suggesting that we could all go back to hunting and gathering.There are simply not enough wild resources to sustain the current human population. So where does foraging fit in our model of sustainable living today? I feel that the answer lies partly in understanding and respecting wild resources, but also in producing more food locally ourselves.

Foragers in a field
Wild Garlic leaves

So firstly what foraging is allowed here in the UK? Generally, if a species is not protected by Law and you have legal access to the land (e.g. on a footpath) you have a right to collect for personal use parts that do not result in the death of the plant (e.g. leaves, fruits, nuts and fungi*). Harvesting roots usually kills the plant so this requires landowner's permission and is not permissible for protected species. When foraging you need to know what can make you ill or even kill you. There is a lot of nuance in foraging safety. Obviously there are the deadly poisonous species, but also, some fungi and plants need to be cooked to make them safe, some shellfish harbour toxins, some species are allergenic, some plants can be eaten at certain times of year but best avoided at others. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing! From a sustainable foraging point of view it also vital to have some understanding of the biology of the species. If you are relatively new to foraging, perhaps the best approach (apart from attending a course!) is to start with one species at a time researching it and really getting to know it. It is always important to know what the distinguishing features are and if there are any dangerous lookalikes. Also find out if it has a protected status and what kind of lifecycle it has. Does it cause allergic reactions for some people? Is it locally scarce? To illustrate a point, on our survival and foraging courses we often forage for wild plants, nuts, fruit and fungi. We work in woods where we have the landowner's permission to dig up selective roots such as burdock, wild garlic and bullrushes. All three species are fairly common nationally and numerous in the sites we use. However, wild garlic and bullrushes can propagate asexually from the rootstock and therefore are harder to over-exploit for occasional personal use. With garlic we sometimes dig up a few bulbs when the aerial parts are not available. Burdock however is a biennial (two year lifecycle) and doesn't reproduce asexually, only by seeds in the second year. Even if we dig up only a few plants on each course, we have to be careful that over time we don't wipe out the plants in a particular field. I tend to rotate our foraging efforts over different locations to allow new plants to establish and keep a careful eye on their status.

Burdock leaves
Picking mussels

Similar issues occur where multiple different groups of people are exploiting a single food source. Bivalve shellfish are a good example. These shoreline species are particularly tasty and include mussels, cockles, and razor clams. There are safety issues related to bivalves - you can read about it in my blog on razor clams. Here on the West Coast of Scotland, locals and tourists will sometimes collect shellfish from a single area. Even if everyone is trying forage sustainably and taking just a few shellfish this can add up almost imperceptibly over time. I have noticed that some rocky areas which were once full of mussels are now looking decidedly depleted. I now no longer collect from those places trying to let them re-establish, although I have no control over the activity of others.

It is perhaps useful to consider how easy it is impact even prolific species over time. Even before the agricultural and industrial revolutions there are some dramatic examples of extinctions when early humans first colonised Australia (45,000 years ago) and later the Americas (16,000 years ago). These lands were brim full of remarkable megafauna, for example giant kangaroos and marsupial lions in Australia, and mammoths in North America. Fossil evidence shows mass extinctions within in a few hundred years of human colonisation and the circumstantial evidence of human culpability is very strong. The megabeasts provided vast stores of calories and as they hadn't learnt to fear humans they were relatively easy prey.

The question is, did these humans have any idea they were in the process of wiping them out? Possibly not, it wouldn't have been in their interest to remove such important food resources. Without records of numbers over time it can also be difficult to map decline of species or even realise what is happening. This can also be the problem for the modern day forager on a local scale - unless you observe the changes in abundance over time it can be difficult to know if you and your fellow foragers are impacting a species. By monitoring things like burdock and mussels in my course venues, over time it is possible to know when to put the brakes on and allow things to recolonise. I think it is an important responsibility of foragers to know about the species we are collecting so we can predict whether our activities will outstrip their ability to recolonise. Also, it is important to get idea of local abundance and watch for changes over time - even better if you can take some photos. If we take sparingly from abundant species, predominantly harvest parts that don't kill the plant,and watch what is happening in our areas we can enjoy foraging as a supplement to our core food.

coastal foraged fare - razor clams, channelled wrack, mussels, limpets, gutweed

foraging for bullrushes

Although responsible foraging is great, true local self-reliance with our current population size has to come primarily from producing more food ourselves. Obviously some people don't have gardens but there are still opportunities for window boxes, allotments and buying local produce. Permaculture offers exciting possibilities in a world of dwindling wild resources. For those not familiar with the term, permaculture is a holistic system of design for gardening and agriculture that integrates different elements such as energy production, light, nutrients in a way that is both productive and in sync with nature. I aim to write more about permaculture in a later blog.

seedlings in a permaculture greenhouse

home grown veg

So, while it is really encouraging to see the rise in foraging it is now more important than ever that we forage in a way that doesn't deplete our valuable natural resources.

Stay well, all the best.


Leon spies Chicken of the Woods


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