If you hadn’t noticed it’s autumn again. Heralded by foraging headlines in the news with fungi bans and reports of gangs raiding forests for mushrooms. Are foragers all evil or is this a disproportionate response to a social problem? Monica Wilde, a member of the Association of Foragers, looks at some of the issues.
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.