Led into the realm of mushrooms and having a resident barn owl AoF member Daniel Butler shares how 25 years living in rural Wales shaped his world in The Owl House
Here is an excerpt in which Wales is revealed as a world class mushrooming location.
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It surprises many people to discover that Wales has the perfect conditions for many of the world’s most prized fungi. The climate is mild and damp – which is much better for many mushrooms than the hot dry conditions found in Italy or the Dordogne.
A few years back I heard the Michelin-starred Danish chef, René Redzepi,being interviewed by Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. His Copenhagen restaurant, Noma, is ranked number one in the world, and the chef proudly boasted he had dropped caviar from his menu in favour of chicken of the woods, a yellow bracket fungus which grows in summer on deciduous trees such as willow and oak. He described it as a fantastic but extremely rare ingredient which grows in only two places in Denmark and only three people know where these are.
This is probably hype, designed to promote the restaurant’s menu, but even if it is rare in Denmark, it certainly isn’t in Wales. I know of a dozen sites and when it does occur, the outcrops can be significant, weighing several kilos. I have no problems with his claims for its gastronomic excellence, for although to my mind it is nothing like chicken, it has a delicate flavour and a fantastically firm texture which makes it an infinitely superior tofu.
One potentially surprising aspect of this however is the almost total dearth of fungal knowledge in the locality. There are many good amateur naturalists locally, people who know a linnet from a twite and a willow warbler from a whitethroat. Most people also prize the myriad of whimberries that fruit in mid-summer, but virtually no one knows anything more about wild fungi than nostalgic memories of gathering field mushrooms as a child: ‘I remember picking them with my grandfather,’ they’ll sigh. ‘We’d eat them with bacon around the kitchen table for breakfast – delicious!’
Another odd thing about the best mushrooms is where they are found. Most guide books recommend scouring deciduous woods for choice species such as porcini, bay boletes, chanterelles and wood hedgehogs and there is certainly no shortage of oak, birch and hazel coppice. Yet after years of hunting, I find the most fruitful woods are actually mature conifer plantations. These are generally derided by conservationists as ecological deserts, artificial habitats that are so dark thanks to close planting of non-native that little of value can live there.
In fact the reverse is true when it comes to fungi and sometimes the crops can be prodigious. Early on in my mushrooming gathering I entered one wood on a whim and left a few minutes later with around 30kg of porcini which were sliced and dried overnight on top of the wood burner. On another occasion I had taken my children to the Llangorse Climbing Centre. I had no desire to watch them clamber up and down plastic rocks for two hours so went to photograph a local waterfall only to stumble across a bumper crop of chanterelles – I picked 7kg in 20 minutes which were cleaned, flash-fried and frozen for the coming winter.
These are just two of the scores of edible species I began to discover in local woods. I learned piecemeal, adding to my repertoire one species at a time, but with the enthusiasm of a novice, I threw myself into the task and by the end of the first autumn could confidently identify a dozen. By the end of the second year I had found and tasted almost 50. Certainly some were very much better than others and after two decades of collecting I ignore most, and porcini form the backbone of my harvesting.
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Excerpt from The Owl House by Daniel Butler
The Professional Wild Food Community and Covid-19: The use of online platforms in supporting people to access alternative food sources.
By Dr Leanne Townsend, James Hutton Institute (& AoF Member).
This paper reflects on the response of the professional wild food community in the UK to lockdown measures during Covid-19. It explores the rapid adaptation of the community towards providing (mostly free of charge) online support via various social media platforms and using various communication tools. This support is aimed at providing high quality information on how to safely forage for wild foods in rural and urban environments. The paper considers the reasons for increased interest amongst the general public in foraging for wild foods during Covid-19. It reflects on motivations for wild food professionals to provide free online education, and the longer-term impacts on their economic viability once lockdown has been lifted, considering bridging social capital as one positive outcome of these support activities. It frames wild food as an alternative local food system with potential for increasing the resilience of local communities in times of uncertainty.
Foraging; wild food; professional community; online education; local food.
The extent to which foraging and wild food is locally embedded in cultural practices varies globally. In some cultures, wild foods form a staple part of the diet (Luczaj 2020); in others, wild food knowledge and practices have been lost over time. In the UK indigenous knowledge of wild food is limited, yet foraging is an increasingly popular activity, popularised by a drive for outdoor pursuits, an increasingly foodie culture and the practices of fine dining restaurants, celebrity chefs and local food movements (de Jong and Varley 2017). Foraging embodies the values of diverse cultural groups in the UK. It reflects a desire to get closer to nature, and to source more nutritious, gourmet and sustainable food. Foraging is largely considered a sustainable practice which celebrates local produce, promotes wellbeing and creates custodians of natural habitats.
The increasing interest in foraging and wild food supports a growing community of professional foragers and wild food specialists in the UK and globally. These specialists engage in a range of economic activities which deliver wild food education, products and services. The majority of wild food professionals are engaged in teaching – typically in the form of courses in which clients join a group and explore rural (and sometimes urban) natural habitats, learning how to identify edible wild plants and fungi, as well as learning which plants and fungi to avoid. These courses often also include a small meal at the end which showcases how to prepare wild foods in various dishes, as well as how to preserve one’s harvest in various ways (dehydration, pickling, fermenting, alcohol and so on). Other wild food professionals run themed workshops (for example, making gin with wild botanicals, making ferments with wild plants etc.) as well as dining events such as pop-up supper clubs. A smaller number of wild food professionals produce drinks such as specialist gins and liqueurs, sell preserves, and supply fresh wild plants and fungi (typically to restaurants).
Research to date on foraging and wild food practices is somewhat limited, tending to fall under the general area of “Non-Timber Forest Products” or NTFPs (even though not all wild food comes from forests) which encompasses food, medicine and crafts among others. Much of this work is concerned with ecological implications, both positive and negative (e.g. see Ticktin 2004) and the economics of commercialising wild foods (e.g. see Zhu et al. 2019). Whilst a valuable body of work has arisen in the field of NTFPs, a focus on “product” arguably misses the importance of the more social and psychological aspects of foraging, such as values connected with nature connectedness, wellbeing and sourcing local food.
This paper reflects on the response of the professional foraging community to Covid-19. It explores how members of the community have adapted their practices (largely online), to support people in safely accessing wild food resources. The paper considers what this means for the long-term sustainability of these businesses, bearing in mind that this online support is being offered free of charge in many cases. The paper explores the concept of wild food as an alternative local food system and considers the reasons for its boom in popularity during lockdown measures in Covid-19.
As well as being a social scientist engaged in research around wild food practices and cultures, the author is also a wild food professional. She runs a small business offering foraging courses and workshops, and is involved with several local, regional and national food-based festivals and events. This position gives the author a unique viewpoint (as both researcher and researched) into the world of wild food. She is a member of the Association of Foragers – an organisation representing wild food professionals globally. She is well embedded in local and online wild food networks which communicate via a number of social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The author therefore acknowledges a bias, most notably in the sense that she is embedded in that which she reflects on in the paper – practices which she tends to view in a positive light. On this understanding, she has tried to be as objective as it is possible to be when discussing one’s own practices. As noted by Mason (2002), with careful reflection it is possible to develop methodologically sound practices of “self research”, though in this paper the author focuses more centrally on the practices of others in the wider professional community, even where these might be relevant to her own practices.
Method and ethics
This paper does not reflect on primary research. Instead, it is a commentary paper, which describes responses to Covid-19 amongst a particular community of practice. Despite this, the paper presents insights garnered from the author’s privileged position as a member of these online communities. It can therefore be considered “netnographic” in the sense that it is a form of online ethnographic observation. In order to ensure ethical considerations are met for publishing these reflections, the paper follows the framework developed by Townsend and Wallace (2002). Reflections are based on discussions witnessed on Facebook and Instagram. The paper presents these observations but does not provide quotations (which can lead back to an online profile and compromise anonymity). Nor does the paper cite business or individual names. A research-based publication will follow in the coming months when netnographic research can be carried out in-depth online, when implications of Covid-19 on the professional wild food community are better understood.
The Professional Wild Food Community: Adopting a New Approach
During March 2020, most foraging instructors in the UK had begun to schedule their courses for the year. Some instructors had already begun to run some early spring courses – typically those in the south of the UK, where plants tend to be in season earlier. As Covid-19 impacts began to unravel but before lockdown had been imposed by the Government, wild food professionals were already realising that they would need to cancel or reschedule these courses as a matter of social responsibility. Most instructors then offered their clients a choice: either to be in credit for a place on a future course, or to have a refund. In most cases, clients who had already booked onto (and therefore paid for) courses chose to accept the offer of a place on a future course, rather than requesting a refund. Instructors were then left without the means to take further bookings on courses, and therefore to make money during lockdown measures – without any certainty on when they would be able to take bookings again. The Government soon announced its scheme to support businesses, though this would only be a reassurance to those individuals working more formally as registered businesses. It is important to mention that amongst the professional wild food community, some individuals work full time in wild food, whereas others have additional jobs or careers, and therefore have alternative sources of income.
At this time, wild food professionals were faced with a choice. Take a break in activities, or find new ways to offer their services.
A surge in interest in wild food
At the same time, social media (Instagram feeds, Facebook wild food groups) saw a surge in interest in wild food – in some cases with individuals without proper training delving into the plants and fungi of their local landscapes. This activity can be witnessed on Instagram (through searching relevant hashtags such as “foraging” and “wildfood”) and Facebook in a large number of wild food-related groups, such as “UK Wild Food Larder” (note, as an ethical measure only public online groups are named, which do not require membership approval to gain access). An increase in activity was also seen on the Facebook group “Poisons Help: Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants”. This group was set up by plant and fungi experts with the goal of helping individuals (as well as medics and vets) to identify plants and fungi that have been consumed by adults, children and animals. The group itself is a great example of a specialist community giving a great deal of their spare time to support others with no financial gain for themselves – the experts running the group span the globe with expertise covering a vast range of plant and fungi species. Since Covid-19 lockdown measures the group has seen a rise in the number of posts of individuals consuming unknown plants and fungi – in some cases with worrying symptoms (though no fatalities have been observed through the group since lockdown measures began).
Why the increased interest in wild food? It’s important to bear in mind that the professional wild food community have a strong online presence – like others working in the food industry, they are keen to create a strong profile for themselves, and a positive image for foraging and foragers. Self-promotion through social media platforms is a crucial aspect of building a wild food business – bookings for courses, workshops and other events come largely through one’s social media followers. So foraging and wild food was already visible to the many people who follow wild food accounts online. Further, a number of chefs and bartenders, given more time during lockdown to spend in their gardens and nearby natural spaces, and less access to other gourmet ingredients, have taken to incorporating more wild foods into dishes and drinks. These creations are made at home, rather than in their place of work, but nonetheless are a means of promoting both their own profile and that of the restaurant, bar or hotel in which they work. These chefs and bartenders often have large followings online too, hence raising the profile of wild food and foraging further.
People have also taken the opportunity to access nature during their allotted daily exercise sessions. For some, this means a local park or woodland, with others straying no further than their back gardens. Given the lack of personal freedoms in other respects, the chance to spend time outdoors engaging in meaningful activity is positive in terms of both physical and mental wellbeing (something that the wild food community have been keen to stress for many years). For those individuals who were unable to work from home, and therefore furloughed, wild food and foraging has provided an interesting and enjoyable way to spend time.
It’s also important to note that for some, lockdown during Covid-19 has been a time of uncertainty and stress. Financial difficulties are a reality for the many households who did not qualify for the Government support schemes. For these people, the chance to access free food which is high in nutrition is an opportunity to protect their food security during this period. Although foraged foods are rarely substantial enough to form the mainstay of one’s diet, many are higher in nutrients than cultivated foods, and can therefore boost a nutrient-poor diet. Finally, there are those who have taken pains to minimise or even avoid their visits to supermarkets and smaller stores. Given the difficulty in obtaining slots for online delivery, these people have also been keen to find alternative means of accessing food.
Wild food professionals adapting to become online educators
Given the surge in interest in wild food including people without the correct knowledge taking risks around toxicity, wild food professionals quickly adapted their role to that of online educators. Although many of these professionals were already very prolific online, many became much more active in terms of the amount of educational content they were posting on social media platforms. This period has seen wild food professionals embracing all manner of online communication tools to get good quality educational information out to a large number of people. These tools have included videos (videos on Facebook, and videos in “Stories” and on “Instagram TV” or IGTV on Instagram), and even live videos on Instagram where viewers are able to type in questions which are answered in real time. Zoom (an online meeting place similar to Skype) has been used to provide online training to people in place of face-to-face foraging courses. A new group has been started on Facebook to encourage children (along with caregivers) to engage with wild food, with membership growing extremely rapidly, and with wild food professionals taking time to create engaging activities for children to enjoy and boost their learning about plants and wild food. Foraging instructors in some cases have started a wild food mentorship scheme, with a pay as you are able structure. Furthermore, a subgroup of the Association of Foragers quickly developed a paper-based magazine to help people to learn how to safely forage in their own neighbourhoods. One interesting adaptation is that two gin producers (both of whom use largely wild botanicals in their products) have switched to producing alcohol-based handwash during Covid-19.
Given the crossover between herbalism and wild food foraging, there has also been a small movement towards providing medicinal advice around wild herbs and their potential to protect against Covid-19. Wild food professionals have typically approached this with some caution however, as it is widely understood that irresponsible (or unqualified) medical advice around natural herbs can lead to undesired health outcomes.
This rapid adaptation echoes a similar trend seen amongst local food producers, restaurants and so on, which have rapidly switched into online order/home delivery mode for some of their products and services. Further, these food businesses are in some cases collaborating with foragers to adapt their services. This is just one example of how wild food practices can contribute to alternative local food systems, and build resilience in local communities in uncertain times.
Outcomes for wild food professionals.
It’s important to note than for the most part, these activities have been offered at no cost to online audiences, or wild food “learners” – although in some cases, more comprehensive online courses and tutoring have been offered for a fee. It therefore begs the question what is the motivation for wild food professionals to offer up these services, which are time consuming to develop and deliver? As far as the Association of Foragers is concerned, members share a common vision to encourage more people to connect with nature through the means of wild food – the tagline for the Association is “Restoring Vital Connection”. Certainly, most foragers share this value, and their work is often motivated by it. Bringing more people to wild food may therefore be reward enough for many wild food professionals.
Although these activities for the most part do not lead to income for the wild food professionals, increased social media activity (particularly where this proves useful for audiences) inevitably leads to a bigger following (more likes on posts and videos, more followers overall) – which in turn leads to a stronger profile and a more well-known name. This itself can bring about other opportunities (for example, invitations to contribute writing to press, opportunities to do television and radio interviews, proposals to collaborate with others), essentially building bridging social capital (the strength of building weak online ties is powerful for small-scale businesses, as discussed in Townsend et al. 2016). It is this potential of online networks for wild food professionals which has also potentially motivated these educational activities. Wild food professionals will need to hit the ground running when all of this is over – the greater the interest in their work with wild food, the more opportunities for them to return to economic activity once Covid-19 lockdown measures are lifted.
Acknowledgement and declaration:
This paper and associated observational research was carried out in the author’s own time, and is not associated with any funding source. The author will not receive any financial benefit from the publishing of this work.
de Jong, A., & Varley, P. (2018). Foraging tourism: Critical moments in sustainable consumption. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 26(4), 685-701.
Luczaj, L. (2020). On the Wild Side: From the Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers to Postmodern Foraging, Bushcraft and New-Age Nature Seekers. Independently published, January 2020.
Mason, J. (2002). Researching your own practice: The discipline of noticing. Psychology Press.
Ticktin, T. (2004). The ecological implications of harvesting non‐timber forest products. Journal of Applied Ecology, 41(1), 11-21.
Townsend, L. and Wallace, W. (2016), “Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics,” http://www.dotrural.ac.uk/ socialmediaresearchethics.pdf.
Townsend, L., Wallace, C., Smart, A., & Norman, T. (2016). Building virtual bridges: How rural Micro‐Enterprises develop social capital in online and Face‐to‐Face settings. Sociologia Ruralis, 56(1), 29-47.
Zhu, Y., Fu, B., Liu, J., Wang, Y., Xu, P., Yan, K., ... & Liu, Q. (2019). Sale of wild edible fungi—Key influence on the relationship between household livelihood and non-timber forest products utilisation: A case study in the Three Gorges Reservoir Area. Forest Ecology and Management, 444, 1-8.
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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