Coronavirus means we find ourselves in a very different world to that of only a few weeks ago. Changes none of us could have believed have happened so quickly.
Access to food is not as it was, shelves in the shops have gaps and some foods are difficult to get hold of.
With schools closed to most, families have children to educate and entertain at home.
We are not able to move freely any more, no longer going where we want to when we want to.
Some people have time on their hands.
We must keep a distance from people outside of our households.
There is a greater awareness of healthy eating, exercise and fresh air.
Face to face foraging courses have been cancelled.
Heightened Interest in Foraging During Coronavirus
For these reasons and more, the Coronavirus restrictions mean many people are turning to the wild larder on their doorsteps and using their exercise opportunity to forage for wild food while following the social distancing rules. We are fortunate that the changes have coincided with a bountiful time in the wild larder and, so far, improved weather. This heightened interest is demonstrated by record levels of :
Web site / blog page hits
Sign-ups for mailing lists (welcome to all new readers!)
Activity (new members / posts / likes) in online foraging groups
Instructional foraging videos appearing
Those that have foraged before, that know what can / cannot be picked and have access to suitable areas have lapped it. People such as me, with less pressures on their time than normal, have been incorporating far more wild food in their diets than ever before, enjoying tried and trusted recipes, but also getting new ideas from others and a degree of experimentation.
Coronavirus means there are also many new or inexperienced foragers which in some ways is great. There are however concerns, they don’t know the “rules” on safety, sustainability and the law. On Facebook groups in the last week or two I’ve seen lots of positive things, such as first-time foraging families making and enjoying soup, but also:
Lords and Ladies (Wild Arum / Cuckoo Pint) in someone’s kitchen – it burns your lips / throat etc.
People asking about eating members of the Umbellifer (Carrot / Parsley) family which also contains deadly poisonous members such Hemlock Water Dropwort and Hemlock. Standard advice is that this family is not for beginners.
Someone nibbling plants said one tasted quite nice and wanted recipe ideas. It was the deadly poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort!!!
Uprooted Wild Garlic – illegal without landowner’s consent – use the leaves (or buds / flowers / stems / seeds).
Mention of picking on a nature reserve. I don’t know the specifics; some owners don’t mind if what is picked is common, others have an outright ban on foraging on their land. Best to ask.
While the above are issues of legality and safety, there is a lot of bad etiquette in the groups:
Countless uploading lots of photos of different plants – “Can I eat any of these?” The poster gives no indication of country or habitat and make no attempt at listing the features of the plant or attempting to identify it.
People guessing at others plant identification requests.
Hopefully, these people are learning and will:
Stick to plants they are 100% sure of the identification and that they can be eaten. There are lots of easy ones.
Learn the poisonous species first.
Leave a little of the raw plant to one side and tell someone what they have eaten just in case they don’t react well to it.
Ask for help with identification but do make some attempt to work out what it is first.
Not nibble wild plants without knowing their edibility.
Access to Foraging Spots Under Coronavirus
We should remember that under the Coronavirus restrictions not everyone has access to areas where there are foraging opportunities. We must exercise from home. One lady I was in contact with, lives in the middle of a city and her usual foraging spots are beyond walking distance. I don’t know her area but guess there must be some wild places not too far from where she lives – parks, waste ground, towpaths etc. Even if you and your family are in self-isolation, current NHS guidance allows you to spend time outdoors – “You can use your garden, if you have one. You can also leave the house to exercise – but stay at least 2 metres away from other people”. You could well have some wild foods growing in your garden – Nettles, Hairy Bittercress, Cleavers, Sorrel, Crow Garlic, Dandelions etc.
Yes, the situation is terrible and very sadly, people are losing lives, but let us hope there are some positives that come out of the Coronavirus situation that we can take forwards into the future. I firmly believe that foraging can help now and after this:
The below pages on our web site have our pick of foraging books. Links are provided for on-line ordering but please consider supporting support your local bookshop too – they may be able to post to you.
“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:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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)
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.
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”.
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)
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.
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!
Source: 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.
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).
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
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!
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.
Earlier this week I spent a wonderful couple of days at the annual meeting of the Association of Foragers. Attendees were the majority of those that work in foraging in this country with a liberal sprinkling of overseas delegates. It was a very inspiring few days with fellow foraging teachers, suppliers, manufacturers, authors and researchers putting faces to names and sharing experiences / ideas.
One lunch was cheese and biscuits, but we are all asked to bring something we’d made with a foraged ingredient. The below is just a small part of the fantastic items that appeared:
Pickled Ask Keys
Pickled Wild Garlic Buds
Pickled Cats Tails (Reed mace hearts)
Pickled green Elderberries
Fermented Sea Kale
Japanese Knotweed Chutney
Seaweed and Cheese Biscuits
Sweet Jelly Ears
Candied Crab apples
Birch Sap Fudge
Wines (including Meadowsweet), meads and spirits (Elderberry Whisky, various gins and vermouths)
An evening meal besides casseroles included some foraged ingredients:
Twice baked potatoes – scrapped out, mixed with a filling including Three Cornered Leek and then refilled.
Sea Beet mixed with Three Cornered Leek.
A pickle that included Alexanders roots.
Wild garlic fruit (seed pods) dressing (liquidised with a little olive oil)
I missed a fungi field trip with “guru” Roger Philips, but joined an amazing day on seaweeds with phycologist Prof Christine Maggs (someone who studies seaweed (algae)). She is author of the Seasearch Guide to Seaweeds of Britain and Ireland, Green seaweeds of Britain and Ireland, and Seaweeds of the British Isles.
Besides eating seaweeds, they can and do some great things:
Act as “sea defences” absorbing colossal wave energy
They fix about 33% of all carbon dioxide
Some can offer a sustainable source of a material for producing ceramics for bone tissue engineering with 3D printing
Some have anti-bacterial properties – treat athletes foot by soaking your feet in water with a particular seaweed. Also medical applications preventing infection from implants
Some can stimulate bone growth
Some can create diabetes drugs that don’t have side-effects
They can be part of an aquaculture system – creating effluent from shellfish and creating a usable product
Love it or loathe it, it’s just over a month until Christmas. It’s always nice to get gifts that you actually want rather something completely random that your life was already complete without (more socks, hankies etc). If you are a forager, here are a few ideas that you could point your loved one or family towards.
Yes, any knife can be used to cut a mushroom, keeping the mud and debris out of your basket (and supper), but one with a brush on the end means you can clean them as you go, giving less work in the kitchen. They come in many shapes and sizes but a nice wooden folding knife does the job and fits easily into a pocket. Do make use of the little hole so you can attach it to a stretchy, spiral lanyard thing and your belt loop and avoid leaving it on the woodland floor (like I do – I lost a book that way once!)
You need a decent container to carry your foraged goodies home – carrier bags just don’t look the part and are no good for mushrooms or where there are thorns around. Go for the traditional look and help keep skilled traditional British crafts going with a beautiful willow basket from the Somerset Levels or a classic chestnut and willow Sussex Trug. Google these terms to buy straight from the craftsman.
You can never have enough books on foraging. There are so many out there with new ones being added. Two you might not have on your bookshelf yet:
Mushrooms – Peter Marren
This is not your regular mushroom book. It is NOT a field guide to help with identifying the good guys from the bad guys. It is a lot broader and provides a remarkable insight into the natural and human world of fungi. It is a refreshingly candid view of the diversity of fungi and our relationship with this intriguing group. It explores topics such as the naming of fungi, their importance in natural ecosystems, fungus forays and our ambivalent attitude to edible fungi, as well as recent efforts to record and conserve vulnerable species.
A fungal autobiography
Meet the mushrooms
What’s in a name?
Mushrooms on parade
What mushroom is that?
In our midst: our fungal neighbours
Earthtongues, waxcaps and hedgehogs
Scarcity and plenty
Forays amongst the funguses
The good, the bad and the crazy
Picking for the pot
According to a review in The independent it is “The greatest book about mushrooms you’ll ever read”.
Wildcook – ceps, shrubs & rock ‘n’ roll – Garry Eveleigh
This is not just a foraging field guide but also a great cookery book with lots of wonderful recipes for your foraged ingredients. Garry has concentrated on a selection of his favourites, highlighting what to look for on beaches and foreshores, hedgerows, fields and forests, giving the reader detailed information on where ingredients are found, how to identify them safely, with helpful picking tips and suggestions for their uses. James Golding, a leading chef, has provided the mouth-watering recipes.
Take a look at the accompanying web site to have a peek at the photos and recipes. A friend bought 10 copies for Christmas presents!
You never stop learning about foraging – new habitats, ingredients and recipes. We offer a comprehensive range of half day foraging walks and full day courses to help you learn. They cover topics including seashore, seaweeds, fungi, spring greens, hedgerow and “fruit and nut”,
Foraging walks last around 3 hours. We collect seasonal wild foods learning about their identification and uses. As we go we discuss safety, sustainability and legal aspects. There may be some sampling.
Day courses generally comprise:
A foraging walk collecting a range of seasonal wild foods learning about their identification and uses.
An indoor session preparing, cooking and eating a three-course lunch based on our finds (not fungus foray – just sampling).
An illustrated talk on wild foods.
Hedgerow Harvest foraging course gift vouchers make an ideal present for someone interested in the outdoors and cooking. They are perfect for Christmas, birthdays, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day or a retirement or leaving present. They are redeemable against either:
A place on any one of our scheduled foraging day courses
A place on any two of our scheduled foraging walks