Conservation and Wild Food Foraging

As a passionate conservationist, dedicated to protecting the Lizard wildlife, it may seem unusual, indeed downright contradictory, that I am also passionate about foraging for wild food.

A few years ago I was invited to do a piece on Radio 5 Live about foraging for food from the wild. This was a live discussion with John Wright, author of the fantastic and highly recommended River Cottage foraging books. As National Trust Head Ranger for the Lizard Peninsula, I think I was brought in to offer a counter argument, defending the rights of wild plants and animals to remain 'un-foraged' in the name of conservation. Unbeknown to 5 Live, I am also a keen forager and agreed with pretty much everything John had to say on the subject. Hardly the live heated argument 5-Live was hoping for!

From a conservation point of view, so long as the countryside isn't pillaged of plants, animals and fungi for commercial gain, then I can't really see the problem in collecting nature's bounty once in a while for personal use. However, with the possible exception of some species of fungi and shellfish, there is very little evidence of any significant impact even from commercial collection. As John Wright says; "It is of course perfectly possible to forage in a manner that is damaging to the natural world, but it is not actually all that easy."

To blame the forager for the loss of some of our native plants and animals doesn't really do justice to the real problem: human induced loss of habitat through agriculture, forestry, development, urbanisation, pesticides, golf courses, etc, the list is endless. Foraging hardly gets a look in within the league of ecological offenders, a few places behind taking your dog for a walk in the woods, or going for a drive in the countryside.

"Ah", I hear you say, "but what if everybody picked wild plants?" Well, everybody doesn't go foraging, and even if they did, it really would have negligible effect on wild populations of our favourite foraged plants; nettles(!), sloes, brambles, wild garlic, sorrel, hawthorns, sea beet etc. It would be nigh-on impossible to have any impact at all on wild populations. However, if it gets people outside, bringing them closer to nature, let them appreciate what unspoilt and well managed countryside can offer, then more people foraging can only help our conservation goals.

I wish that some species could be foraged to extinction. Plants such as Three Cornered Leek, Hottentot fig and even the dreaded Japanese Knotweed are not only very edible and delicious but also very unwelcome incomers to our natural environment. These species are invasive and compete with our native flora. I'd actively encourage everyone to collect and eat as much as they possibly can.

Other species, whilst not quite so odious as the invasive bullies listed above, are none the less a serious nuisance to the gardener. I used to spend hours weeding my vegetable patch of weeds, before I discovered that many of them were actually just as delicious as the salads I was trying to grow. Fat hen, chickweed, goosefoot, nettles, dandelions and the dreaded ground elder are all worthy additions to the salad bowl. Not only can you feel virtuous eating them but also get a warm feeling of satisfaction from getting your own back on such pernicious garden weeds. You could always add a few garden snails into the mix for extra satisfaction!

Most fruits and nuts are, of course, designed by nature to be foraged in order to disperse their seed, that's why many of them taste so good. They want to be collected and eaten! The forager might therefore be inadvertently helping the reproduction of the plant through discarding a bruised crab apple or spilling the occasional haw during collection.

John Wright, in his River Cottage handbook; Hedgerow, makes the very valid point that eating wild food is arguably more virtuous than eating cultivated food. Any crop, he explains, whether its rice, potatoes, wheat, salad, tomatoes etc, requires that whatever organism were there originally must be destroyed and kept at bay. There are vast quantities of wild food in our hedgerows, woods and fields and most of it goes to waste, more often than not flailed or sprayed to oblivion by the council or farmer. He argues, in theory at least, that the more food we take from the wild would mean more land would be released from agriculture and reserved for wildlife. His concern is not that we forage too much, but too little!

To be fair, foraging can have some negative impact, mainly through collateral damage of sensitive habitats through trampling. The collection of ceps and chanterelles in our woodlands is arguably no different from picking apples from a tree. The real damage comes from trampling of the woodland floor and disturbance of other wildlife. Wetlands, marshes and mudflats are also sensitive habitats, which could be damaged through trampling or disturbance of nesting birds, but in the wider context of conservation, its impact is minimal.

So, assuming you know what you're picking, and you're not going to poison yourself, you can enjoy your foraging in the certain knowledge of your virtue.

Published: June 2014
Author: Justin Whitehouse (Lead Ranger; The Lizard)

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