by AoF member Susanne Masters
Dive down past swirling green ribbons to rocks where kelp strikes its hold. Denizens of cooler seas, kelps are a group of seaweeds better appreciated by swimmers than rock poolers, as their beauty unfurls in deeper water. Cuvie (Laminaria hyperborea) is the kelp that skirts Britain and Ireland along their rocky shores. Growing in water from 1m to 47m deep, cuvie is only visible to land lubbers at low tides when its rigid stipes emerge upright from the water while its fronds are crumpled in the shallows.
Trees have roots, trunks and leaves; kelps have holdfasts, stipes and blades. Holdfasts are tentacle like domes that grip on to rocks and resist being torn away by currents. Brittle stars and worms can be found living inside the shelter of holdfasts. Cuvie’s stipe has a rough surface that makes it easy for red seaweeds like dulse (Palmaria palmata) to attach and grow on it. Animals such as sea squirts, bryozoans, hydroids and sponges also settle on the stipes. While plant life slumbers on land, cuvie starts to grow new blades from its stipe in November. It sheds its old blades in early summer. Fish graze and hide amongst the underwater canopy of blades. Providing three tier accommodation in the holdfasts, on the stipes and amongst the blades, cuvie forests are packed with a range of wildlife making them the temperate equivalent of a tropical coral reef.
Cuvie forests lit by shafts of light shifting as water moves its blades are a living cathedral deserving of reverence. They shelter shores from rough weather by absorbing wave energy, and for hundreds of years the cast off blades that washed up on beaches were essential for farmers using them as fertiliser for their crops on land. Cuvie was burnt to produce an ash that was essential for glass and soap manufacture in the 18th and 19th centuries. Cuvie and other kelps are now harvested for the extraction of alginates that are used in food, pharmaceutical, and other industries. Hand harvesting kelp allows the stipes to regenerate – individual cuvie can live for 15 years. Mechanical harvesting via dredging rips up the holdfast and stipe as well as the blades. It takes years for kelp forests to regrow after large-scale mechanical harvesting. Even 4 years after mechanical harvesting the kelp is smaller and there are less animals and other seaweeds living amongst it than in a mature kelp forest.
I have objected to a few mechanical harvesting applications. Singular mechanical harvesting events that extract a resource and profit from it are not good sources of local employment and economic benefit for small communities: which is precisely why I recommended a local hand-harvester for supplying Harris Distillery for sugar kelp for the gin.
If more people walked amongst our underwater forests they would be better cherished. I am an ethnobotanist who is regularly immersed in seaweed and phycology - reading publications and reports at my desk, product sampling, and literally swimming through their fronds. I would not countenance clearcut felling a whole forest for a crop of timber, equally mechanical harvesting of seaweed is a destructive way to make use of our natural resources. In this I am not alone. Certainly on Scotland's land forests horselogging is regaining practice as its gentle harvest maintains intact ecosystems. Our cool waters are a source of wealth as industrial as well as food applications of seaweed increase. It is foolhardy to discard our underwater forests in a sole bounteous harvest of mechanical felling followed by slow and incomplete recovery. Individual cuvie kelp (Laminaria hyperborea) can live up to 15 years, this allows a host of other organisms - epiphytic seaweeds and sedentary animals - to grow on them. Hand harvesting has lower yields and the harvest is more diffuse, allowing kelp and species depending on it to remain as an intact ecological community. But hand harvesting's more sustainable approach leads to greater yields over time, whereas mechanical harvesting can only maintain yields by clearing increasing areas of the seabed.
When considering harvesting of wild ingredients it is imperative to scan the horizon and consider not only immediate conditions but what approaches. Already warming sea temperatures are exerting an influence on our cool water bounty of seaweeds. In the south of England warmer temperatures seem to be shifting kelp forests to Golden kelp (Laminaria ochroleuca) dominated communities - which support less biodiversity. Scotland is a stronghold for Sugar (Saccharina latissima) and Cuvie kelp forests. Mechanical harvesting is likely to speed up the shift in composition of kelp forests.
Hundreds and thousands of years ago the British Isles was denuded of its land forests as pastoral and agricultural practices yielded crops of our demands. Slowly and with much effort some progress is being made in restoring Caledonian forest. With the benefit of hindsight on what happened with our land forests why destroy the Caledonian underwater forests? Mechanical harvesting of seaweeds is a bitter harvest of fleeting profit followed by enduring loss not only of seaweed but the life that lives amongst it. It is also foolish to disregard the role that kelp forests have in absorbing wave energy and buffering our shorelines from storm damage. The annual natural discard of blades (seaweed equivalent of leaves) is a means by which nutrients are given to the land by the sea. As we have to consider our dependence on petrochemicals, seaweed fertiliser washing up as an annual bounty from kelp forests discarding their blades is another useful product. One of the world's rarest habitats - machair - was formed by the interaction between farming on land and nutrients returned from the sea as seaweed.
The richness of seaweed around Harris, biodiversity that dwells in it and the longstanding cultural importance of seaweed are why I selected a seaweed for Harris gin - so that people might connect with a part of the island that is less visible but particularly important to local culture. I specifically identified a local hand harvester as a means of reaching the sugar kelp that would furnish Harris gin with its flavour for as long as the stills are running. Hand harvesting offers a sustainable way of accessing seaweed for commercial ventures.
In many ways I encourage the harvesting of seaweed as a socioeconomic resource supporting sustainable income when the seaweed is either cultivated or hand harvested. Mechanical harvesting is catastrophic for seaweed and the marine life that depends on it. Mechanical harvesting removes seaweed beyond its seasonal renewal rate, and this can trigger ecological changes i.e. once harvested mechanically kelp forests may not grow back. Mechanical dredging of maerl beds has caused abundance of maerl to decline.
Perhaps because I am swimming outdoors all year round it is easier for me to appreciate the complexity and vibrancy of kelp forests. It is the kelp that provides a substrate for all kinds of life to inhabit, everything from 1mm long blue-rayed limpets that have an electric blue stripe of a hue rarely seen in nature, to otters- everyone's favourite water clown. Kelp forests offer an economically valuable resource, provide ecosystem services, and are a seat of biodiversity. Mechanical harvesting of kelp operates from a short-term perspective as it damages the resource it uses. Hand harvesting is the best way to utilise kelp as an economic resource while maintaining kelp forests for their biodiversity and ecosystem value, and to ensure that the economic harvest of kelp can continue indefinitely.
SWIM IN A FOREST OF CUVIE
Cuvie grows along rocky shores, where entry and exit points are often limited, so be sure to check tides and currents before swimming.
This is a combination of an article published in Outdoor Swimmer and my input requested on the Scottish Government's consultation on an application for mechanical seaweed harvesting license.
In 2015, a group of 23 foragers, who work as teachers or suppliers of foraged foods, met-up and formed the Association of Foragers. Over the last year this rapidly expanded to over 80 members from around the world. The momentum came from several years of informal support between the members and, through the Association’s forum and networking, it facilitates the exchange of ideas and sharing of resources. One of the earliest priorities was to collectively agree a code of Principles and Practice for foraging that all the members have signed up to.
Media headlines often portray foragers as at loggerheads with conservationists. Nothing could be further from the truth. In our experience, foragers are people with an intimate knowledge of the flora and fauna of their local habitat, who care passionately about conservation and sustainability, especially in the areas that they forage from. This may be seen as partly altruistic – after all if the local ecology is not cared for then there will be no species to harvest in future years – but it goes deeper than that. Connectedness with nature and place inspires a deep passion, respect and understanding that we are just one small part of the jigsaw.
There is no argument that humans need to reconnect with nature. Medical research shows that the ‘green prescription’ as the BBC reported recently, helps to improve both physical and mental health. Ecological research shows that people who care about nature become excellent stewards of their natural surroundings. Child psychology research shows that less digital online time and more outdoor playtime creates happier children - so important when it’s reported that 25% of young people feel depressed. Foraging is a vital part of this reconnection as it taps into an instinct that is hard-wired into us. On a conscious level, it also makes us much more aware of our environment and the food chain, as well as the politics of land use.
It is the latter that, as summer turns to autumn, is in the headlines again. We rarely see media attention drawn to bramble collection, nettle picking or rose hip harvests (although Bristol City Council started a consultation on this earlier in the year) but fungi seem to occupy a particular place of angst in our national psyche. This autumn it has been fuelled by the Forestry Commission implementing a “no-pick” code in the New Forest, reported by the media as a ‘ban’. This is not a legal ban, as there is no byelaw to support it, but an appeal from the Forestry Commission for all members of the public not to pick any fungi either in the ‘old’ New Forest woodlands nor the ‘new’ spruce plantations.
Surprisingly, although the FC is a public body, there has been no public consultation on this. Without research to support it, actual evidence of illegal picking by ‘gangs’ nor proper public consultation with interested stakeholders – which includes local families who forage (both of English and European descent), foraging teachers, commercial pickers, as well as mycology groups and the residents of the New Forest – it has met with a great deal of consternation and has not gained the support of people, whom loving and knowing the forest well, would have helped to design a fairer system that would allow both foraging and conservation interests to coexist together.
Unfortunately, foraging is not a field that has been researched in a lot of depth. There are studies, most notably a Swiss study carried out over two decades and the American ‘ten year chanterelle project’, that show that foraging seems to do little harm. On the other hand there are numerous studies that find air pollution (the cause of acid rain), industrial farming (whose chemicals contaminate the soil) and the widespread clearance of fungi habitat, are the main factors responsible for fungi decline in some areas. Ironically, this includes the Forestry Commission’s commercial conifer plantations as the clear felling that occurs every 40-50 years has a devastating impact on fungi mycelium. Certainly, in areas where over-population occurs, any human activity can have an impact on nature and its ecological systems.
However, just because there is a suspicion that something may occur does not give any organisation the right, without evidence and due process, to change ancient practices enshrined in common law. Those that allow humans to remain part of the natural world, that we have evolved both in and part of, are particularly precious. Consultations may have concluded that some research should be carried out, that record keeping or monitoring should be improved (whether through voluntary cooperation with organisations like the Association of Foragers or through permits), that law-breakers should be stopped… but to punish every member of the public by implementing a blanket ban is not only illogical but unjust.
Personally I wonder why there is such a disproportionate response to the picking of fungi as opposed to other wild foods. There’s no evidence of widespread harm to the fungi themselves. Perhaps the issue has little to do with foraging and more to do with local politics. No one pays much attention to guessing the nationality of bramble pickers but finding 'strangers' in 'your' forest picking mushrooms (picked by far fewer people than blackberries), in some parts of Britain seems to immediately designate an individual, family or a group of friends out for the day as criminals or devouring migrants. Perhaps it’s an ironic coincidence that the New Forest is in a particularly conservative area where 57.8% (64,541) of the local population voted for Brexit, where UKIP is making some of the largest gains (New Forest West 16.5% of voters, New Forest East 12.5% of voters) with 2 Hampshire UKIP MEPs, while data from 34 police forces showed that Hampshire had the highest rate of allegations of police racism, with 349 made between 2008 and 2013 – equating to 10.7% of all of its officers. Looking in from the outside, it is easy to suspect that the issue is not about fungi picking per se, but about local feelings on population, demographic change and cultural integration. Perhaps it’s just the thought of other people profiting from a ‘free resource’ that annoys people. Or perhaps it’s just a primal response to competition for food and resources when there is over-population and competition.
We are sometimes told that Britain doesn’t have a history of collecting fungi, as if chanterelles on toast for supper was a recent ‘trend’ fuelled by celebrity chefs. I wonder what M.C. Cooke, author of the 1884 edition of British fungi, would have said to that? Or why the Ministry of Agriculture published six editions of a handbook on ‘Edible and Poisonous Fungi’ between 1910 and 1950? Foraging, even if just for a few blackberries, has always been part of British culture.
The National Curriculum teaches 'fundamental British values' including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different beliefs. Society seems to have mixed feelings about foragers and intolerance seems to be growing. The same newspaper that carries an “Aliens Ate My Fungi” story and criticises foraging as a trend, will also publish articles encouraging you to take the whole family foraging and recipes for making your own hedgerow jam. Part of the remit of the Association of Foragers is to help to dispel myths and prejudices, to educate and promote sustainable and mindful harvesting. Some of our members are responsible harvesters making a living from foraged foods and produce. The majority of members are foraging teachers running courses. These are not merely courses about identifying and eating wild foods, as each instructor conveys their own passion for the woods, hedgerows and coasts that they love, by teaching sustainable collecting, not being selfish, awareness of your local ecology, connectedness to nature and passing that on to future generations.
Foraging has no social boundaries. It is definitely not a middle-class leisure activity - many families depend on foraging to eke out the household budget. Some choose, like our ancestors, to rely on wild plants for nutrition. A humble dandelion leaf has 3 times the vitamin A content than spinach and sea buckthorn berries have an antioxidant profile rivalling acai berries. But they’re not flown in from South America! Foraging is about food chains that are local and truly seasonal, that can be harvested by walking less than a food mile. It’s about highly nutritious foods that all of us can afford. It’s about crops that grow without fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, fuel and energy, and produce tasty, nutritious foods without wiping out the bees, the butterflies and other insect life forms, poisoning the water table and our environment with gender-bending, cancer causing chemicals.
Foraging isn’t the issue. Over-population, industrial farming, food deserts, poverty, inequitable access to resources… these are the issues of the day.
To learn more about foraging contact members in your area through www.foragers-association.org/directory
Article by Monica Wilde MSc FLS a member of the Association of Foragers.
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