One of those nasty foragers?
One of those nasty foragers?

“So, you’re one of those nasty foragers!” – Why people forage.

So, you’re one of those nasty foragers!” said the middle aged, well-to-do looking woman to me at a charity event while I was manning a stall promoting my foraging courses. I bit my tongue and outlined to her what most newspapers omitted to say, that foraging is a good thing and that most foragers are passionate about “nature”, they care a great deal about the environment and practice “responsible” foraging. There are also lots of sensible reasons why people forage. I won her round to my way of thinking and she left with a very different view. One down, only tens of millions of people in the UK to go…

That was a few years ago and hopefully I’ve converted quite a few more people since giving talks on foraging and wild foods to WI groups, Wildlife Trusts, Young Farmers, gardening clubs and food festivals, as well as running foraging events for cubs, scouts, young carers and Friends of a country park.

In this blog post I look at some of the reasons why people forage.

Why People Forage

In her PhD thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee at Liverpool University found that people had a myriad of reasons for foraging:

Reasons for Foraging%
Free Food; No food miles25%
Connection to the land and the changing seasons21%
Enjoyment13%
Love of Food11%
Social9%
Exercise7%
Relaxation6%
Vitamins and Nutrition4%
Teach the Next Generation3%

1. Free Food; No food miles

Foraging can support people on low incomes reducing their food bill. There are some free foraging courses for families on low incomes to teach them how to collect and cook free wild food.

Foraging is wallet and waistline-friendly” – Paola Bassanese – The Foraging Home Cook.

 “I saved 30 per cent on my food budget by picking wild vegetables instead of buying vegetables at the supermarket.” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“The cost of the food is in time not money” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

At a more global level:

  • India is looking at wild food species to tackle food security.
  • In a US study more than half of the foragers cited economic benefits as their main motivation. Foraged foods made up three times more of the diets of residents earning less than $40,000 per year than those earning more than $100,000. Moreover, for 10 percent of foragers, wild edibles accounted for 20 percent or more of their diets.

Keep calm and eat free food

Foraged food is usually sourced locally so has less environmental impact in its transportation than many other food items.

 

2. Connection to the land and the changing seasons

Going foraging improves peoples understanding and appreciation of the countryside. A higher value placed on it means they are more likely to defend it from threats. You work with the seasons, understand habitats and see some great wildlife which you recognise you may be sharing resources and space with.

Otter - River Stour Dorset - seen while foraging
I spent 15 wonderful minutes in the company of this Otter while looking for morels. I didn’t find any but I didn’t care! Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

Foraging encourages people to know where some of our food comes from. The ancestors of many modern species can still be seen in the wild.

Sea Beet - the ancient forefather of Beetroot, Sugar Beet, Perpetual Spinach, Chard and more. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest
Sea Beet – the ancient forefather of Beetroot, Sugar Beet, Perpetual Spinach, Chard and more. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

“A direct reminder that food is created by the earth and not Tesco”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“I love the feeling of rooting on the land and seasons, the satisfaction of gathering it in myself and an appreciation of the riches of the landscape I live in”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Foraging improves engagement / reconnection with the environment. A foraging event reaches an audience beyond that of the traditional Wildlife Trust / National Trust / Woodland Trust / RSPB / County Council etc. guided walks. Many of these groups organise wild food events appreciating the many benefits that they bring. A Washington University study said:

“Mushrooms are a wonderful way to engage the public with its natural resources and the environment. It could be an opportunity for the National Park Service to encourage a different demographic of visitors to value, understand and engage with the natural world.”

Foraging events (walks, courses and festivals) are a form of eco-tourism bringing benefits to accommodation providers (out of main season), pubs, indoor venues and so on. An example is the St David’s Seaweed Week bringing together artists, artisan food producers, chefs, conservationists and foragers.

 

3. Enjoyment

While economic reasons were a primary reason for foraging (section 1 above), many people are not foraging out of necessity like hunter gathers of long ago or rural populations in wartime. We are doing it as it is an enjoyable way of spending time. You enjoy the whole ritual of locating, smelling, identifying, collecting then cooking and eating, the sense of achievement that goes with it.

“The actual experience of gathering, including the scratches, being outside, seeing wildlife and so on.” (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Very happy forager on one of our wild booze walks.
Very happy forager on one of our wild booze walks. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

4. Love of Food

Wild foods give a wonderful range of flavours and textures, often with no direct cultivated equivalents. It is often a short time from gathering to eating so the food is still at it’s absolute best.

Elderflower and Gooseberry Fool
Elderflower and Gooseberry Fool. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

5. Social

Whilst foraging can be done alone, it is often undertaken with family, friends or neighbours giving quality-time both in the outdoors and then in the cooking and eating. It can develop community through sharing / swapping foraged raw ingredients and finished food items. Social media foraging forums give people opportunities to ask questions and discuss, share pictures of finds and dishes and build a virtual community.

A study in the US of the social benefits of urban foraging found them “maintaining cultural practices, sharing knowledge, building community, engaging in spiritual practices, and connecting with nature”.

Enjoying a wild-food meal on a hen-do having learnt, gathered and cooked.
Enjoying a wild-food meal on a hen-do having learnt, gathered and cooked. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

6. Exercise / Relaxation

Going foraging is better exercise than shopping and better for the mind! It requires walking to look for the wild food, bending down or stretching up to pick the food and gives plenty of fresh air. It is also relaxing away from screens and the pressures of life. I once heard of an eye specialist who said looking for mushrooms was very good exercise for the eyes!

“I find it very therapeutic and relaxing.  I’m connected to the land”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

“Fresh air, peace, and pleasant primitive feeling – good for the soul”. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

Being tall helps picking Elderflower
Good stretching exercise reaching for Elderflowers. Photo: Hedgerow Harvest

 

7. Vitamins and Nutrition

Wild foods are often very nutritious especially greens and seaweed. Many are rich in vitamins, minerals, flavonoids, anti-oxidants etc. In the World War II the nutritional opportunities of wild foods were recognised by Government. A Ministry of Food leaflet “Hedgerow Harvest” in 1943, highlighted common wild foods and their preparation as well as promoting good “etiquette”. Co-ordinated programmes gathered a number of wild foods including Rose Hips for their vitamin C to boost that available to children and nursing mothers as imported citrus fruits were not available.

Hedgerow Harvest - Ministry of Food - 1943
Hedgerow Harvest – Ministry of Food – 1943

Today, in our gardens or allotments, we clear ‘weeds’ to grow crops, yet many wild plants are more nutritious than their cultivated counterparts. In the below table, you can see Nettles have twice the protein of Spinach, nearly 7 times the vitamin C, more vitamin A, twice the iron and about 4 times the calcium!

Nutrition in foraged foodsSource: Cooking Weeds. V. Weise, Prospect Books 2004.

Foraging also encourages healthy eating – back to basics / not processed (& more expensive / less healthy) foods.

 Most obvious benefits are the freshness of the products. (Survey respondent in Jennifer Lee Lane’s PhD)

 

8. Teach the Next Generation

Wild foods species and their stories are part of our national heritage and it is important to keep this alive. Stories of gathering Rose Hips, herbs, gel producing seaweeds and more as part of the war effort are part of our wild food history and deserve passing on to younger generations.

In the past wild foods were more important culturally and economically than today with wild foods like Blewitts, Bilberries (Whortleberries) and even Snails being gathered and sold in markets. In her Thesis, Jennifer Lane Lee makes a case study of Bilberry picking. The below postcard and quote is taken from the thesis.

Bilberry picking on Bulkeley Hills (1908) from Jennifer Lane Lee's PhD.
Bilberry picking on Bulkeley Hills (1908) from Jennifer Lane Lee’s PhD.

Whortleberry gathering was formerly looked upon as an extension of the harvest, and parties of women and children from all the moorland villages took to the open moor to collect the fruit. It was so vital that children were taken out of school as Whortleberry picking was regarded “as seriously as any other form of harvest”.

In her survey, responses included:

“I feel an ancient connection to my cultural roots”.

“So the next generation recognise seasonal wild foods and the art of jam making is passed on”.

 

9. Environmental Concerns

Jennifer’s PhD thesis was published in 2012 with the survey data from previous years. I would imagine all of the above reasons why people forage to still be true but would think that concerns for the environment might be a greater reason why people forage today.

a. Impacts of Conventional Food Production

Today, many people know (or care?) little about what they are eating, their focus being on price. They are less interested in where it has come from and what has happened to it; has it been genetically altered? What has been sprayed on it? What was the impact on the environment of its farming, transport and production? Concerns about food miles were mentioned in responses back in 2012, but the impact of agricultural intensification and types of fishing activity are greater concerns today. Foraging is FAR less damaging than the alternatives – intensive agriculture, trawling, mechanised seaweed harvesting, even some gardening (chemicals, water usage etc).

Tractor spraying herbicide on cereal crop
Photo Pixabay. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0

b. Invasive Species

Certain invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, Three-cornered Leek and American Signal Crayfish are all highly edible. Left unchecked they can reduce biodiversity. Traditional control of invasive plants usually relies on chemicals which can impact watercourses and non-target species. Japanese Knotweed is seen by most as a real villain. It’s control costs the UK economy around £165 million per year in control measures. Successfully eradicating Knotweed from the Olympic Park in London alone cost £70 million. In the US, Knotweed festivals have foods and other items made from it (e.g. soap) as an alternative control technique. Culinary uses include:

  • Food – soup, as vegetable (stir-fried, braised), in puddings (in the place of rhubarb in any recipe – crumble, fool, cobbler, ice cream, sorbet. etc.), fruit leather, muffins , jam, jelly, marmalade and bread.
  • Drinks – chutney, tea, vodka, cordial, beer and wine
Japanese Knotweed control in Cornwall, Invading Bluebell area in Dorset, Chutney, Vodka, Harvesting. Photos: Hedgerow Harvest
Clockwise from top-left. Japanese Knotweed control in Cornwall, Invading Bluebell area in Dorset, Chutney, Vodka, Harvesting. Photos: Hedgerow Harvest

 3. Food Waste

As an example, bagged salad leaves from supermarkets are reported to represent a high proportion of food waste in the UK. They are quite expensive, and they spoil quickly after you open a bag. Foraged salad leaves from your garden or nearby can be gathered when needed. Wild food also comes without any packaging!

Foraged salad
Salad leaves gathered on a foraging walk. Less than one food mile (on foot), zero chemicals, zero packaging. Very fresh, nutritious, delicious, free, exercise and enjoyment too. What’s to knock?

Conclusions

There are lots of reasons why people forage. For most it’s a combination of reasons. It gives the opportunity to source free, nutritious, delicious, seasonal local food with a much lower environmental impact than food produced by conventional means. It provides an enjoyable, quality time, relaxing and having good exercise be it alone or shared with friends or family, it shows children where their food comes from and connects us with the land. While foragers are often criticised in the media, as with many things, it is the behaviour of a minority that is reported or the reports have little hard evidence to support them. Foraging has so many benefits to the individual, society and the environment that are often ignored in such reports.