A storm is brewing.
More and more articles are appearing in the mainstream press about “irresponsible” or more often “criminal” foragers. Apparently “gangs” are “pillaging” our forests and more sensationalist elements of the media are making much of it.
To a disinterested observer, it could easily appear that foraging presents a major threat to ecological diversity. Fungi foraging in particular attracts the most negative coverage. 12 people are currently being prosecuted for picking mushrooms in Epping Forest – a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Apparently these marauding hoards are driving deer under the wheels of cars and poisoning themselves in alarming (and frankly improbable sounding) ways.
Less sensationalist reports are still worrying for the casual, nature-loving reader.
Its interesting to observe the UK mainstream media’s attitude to foraging. As part of a mycophobic culture, they love a good mushroom poisoning story (this one appears to be illustrated with a picture of the edible false death cap). Much more common deaths from regular food poisoning don’t attract nearly the same column inches. At the same time, journalists love to feed and nurture the growing popularity of wild food, featuring standard calendar pieces in the autumn and more and more chefs and recipes using wild ingredients.
If foraging has enjoyed “celebrity” status, it is starting to suffer the same “build ’em up and knock ’em down” treatment as human media pets. This report on Rene Redzepi’s outing to Hampstead Heath captures this attitude rather well – i’d be very surprised if the chefs were only interested in fungi.
As foraging becomes ever more popular, we should expect both reasonable and sensationalist negative media reports to grow. A storm is brewing.
Up here in rural Scotland its hard to imagine the huge footfall on green spaces in the crowded south, but I have no doubt that parks and “wild” land are under increasing ecological pressure. I’m also aware that there are unenlightened foragers out there, either over-harvesting sensitive species or treating wild food purely as a commodity for financial gain. So this is by no means a head-in-the-sand denial that there is a problem. And its not that I’m ungrateful for the positive reporting that has fed the upsurge of interest in foraging and allowed me make a living from teaching about it. But I hope the following points will read as a balanced and useful response to some of the sensationalism, knee-jerking and, frankly, ignorant reporting that goes on.
Not All Wild Foods Are The Same
We can’t expect every newspaper article to provide detailed information on which species are being “over-picked”. They deal in broad brush strokes. But some attempt at perspective doesn’t seem like an unreasonable request.
The vast majority of foraging in the UK is for incredibly common plants – or “weeds” even. These are plants (or fruits thereof) that rot away in their millions of tons each year. I’m talking about blackberries, nettles, dandelions, sorrel, crab apples, gorse flower…the list is endless. As the only wild food never to go out of fashion, harvested by the bucket load by all and sundry each autumn, we might reasonably expect blackberries to be on the retreat. Yet they are still more common than any other hedgerow fruit, still rot in vast quantities each year.
Of course there are plants and fungi that are rarer and/or under more pressure, but please lets not paint the false picture that all foraging is the same. I estimate that around 90% of what I gather for personal consumption and teach about are “super-abundant”. My criteria for “super-abundant” is that if everybody within walking distance gathered enough for their personal consumption each year, under 1% of a species would actually be harvested. Of course less than 1% of everybody is actually interested in harvesting these species.
Problems arise when a lot of people learn about a few “glamour” species (chanterelles and sea kale are good examples), but even in these cases, evidence of long-term ecological impact is thin on the ground.
Chanterelles, sea kale and ceps: 3 high value “glamour” species
We see a lot of assertions and inferences that the harvesting of wild foods, and fungi in particular, has a negative ecological impact. It seems like a fair and reasonable assumption. But for an argument that is gathering a lot of column inches, there is precious little actual research based evidence on show. In fact most evidence directly contradicts the foraging doom-mongers.
The following extract is from a 25 year scientific study:
” In 1975, we started a field research project to investigate the effects of mushroom picking on fruit body occurrence. […] The results reveal that, contrary to expectations, long-term and systematic harvesting reduces neither the future yields of fruit bodies nor the species richness of wild forest fungi […] Forest floor trampling does, however, reduce fruit body numbers, but our data show no evidence that trampling damaged the soil mycelia in the studied time period.” – From “Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests – results of a long-term study in Switzerland” – Simon Egli et al.
Another scientific test on matsutake harvesting (a highly prized and commercially valuable edible species that doesn’t grow in the UK) found comparable results, and also remarks on the difficulty of evaluating variations in mushroom fruitings from year to year.
Another study concludes: :
” (i) no statistically significant correlation between sporocarp removal and productivity, (ii) an outcome not influenced by harvesting method (pulling versus cutting); (iii) a significantly positive correlation between chanterelle abundance and average summer temperature; and (iv) no correlation between chanterelle abundance and precipitation.” – Norvel – “Loving the Chanterelle to Death: The Ten Year Oregon Chanterelle Project”
Another report found the key influence on fungi growth to be climate – see Buntgen et al “Linking climate variability to mushroom productivity and phenology”
You needn’t be a scientist to realise that mushroom growth is very (macro and micro) climate sensitive.
Sadly it seems simpler, on noticing less mushrooms one year, or even for successive years, to point the finger at foragers. But I can’t find any scientific evidence to support this. If you know of any, please let me know.
I guess I’m coming over as an apologist for mushroom pillagers, but I’m quite the opposite. As somebody who loves and cherishes mycological (and ecological) diversity, meeting people in the woods with carrier bags full of tiny, sweating chanterelles makes my blood boil. There are many reasons not to “overpick” fungi. Other people enjoy seeing and harvesting them too, but I’d sooner get away from the human-centric view. A lot of flora and fauna rely on fungi as food or shelter in the short term, and harvesting a large amount from a small area is ethically unsustainable, regardless of of the dearth of evidence for long term negative effects on mushroom populations.
Foraging for Money: Wild Food as a Resource not a Commodity
The upsurge of interest in wild foods has been driven by two engines.
On the one hand, there is a grass-roots movement towards eating natural foods sourced locally and sustainably in which foraging, done mindfully and to feed ones self and family, sits extremely well.
On the other hand “celebrity” chefs and their media symbiants (as well as high-end chefs) are pushing some wild foods as the amazing gourmet ingredients that they are. Chefs and urban gourmets seldom have the time or opportunity to forage for their own kitchens and thus a market has been created for foragers to sell their wares. This has resulted in the “commodification” of some wild ingredients, notably gourmet fungi, but also a few plants such as sea beet, wall pennywort and wild garlic.
Sea beet, wall pennywort and wild garlic are getting very popular with high-end chefs
I was lucky enough to dine at L’Enclume recently – a 2 Michelin starred restaurant in Cumbria that places a strong emphasis on local and foraged produce in its menus. Of the dozen or so exquisite dishes that I enjoyed, nearly all featured at least one wild ingredient. A potentially heavy burden on finite wild resources you might think.
Not so. The high-end restaurants that cook with wild ingredients use tiny quantities of very high quality, high flavour plants, fruits and fungi. Over those 12 courses, the total volume of the wild ingredients would barely have filled a shot glass. In expert hands, super-abundant ingredients including chickweed, sorrel, rosehips, pine needles, garlic mustard and ox eye daisy were employed with huge love and skill.
Chickweed, rosehips and wood sorrel
While L’Enclume may be at the pinnacle of high-end wild gastronomy, it is typical of the type of restaurants that use foraged produce. Many of these (especially those in rural locations) are now scheduling time in their busy weeks as “chef’s foraging time” so as to be assured of the quality and providence of their wild ingredients. I regularly work with chefs to help them access their wild resources. Most simply don’t have time though, and look to source elsewhere. But be assured, there really is no market whatsoever for wild ingredients that haven’t been picked by a wise and knowing hand. I have seen chefs send away amateurish foragers who turn up at their kitchens with maggoty ceps and muddy, wet chanterelles and I am regularly approached by chefs who have trouble sourcing.
Michelin starred chefs Chris Hruskova and Adam Stokes and Scottish Chef of the Year Gary Goldie – all foraging for common “weeds” for their menus
Very fine wild dining – dock, dandelion and nettle “puddings” with wild garlic dip; crab, sea buckthorn and stonecrop; herring, pink purslane, elderberry, gorse
I personally choose not to supply wild food for money. Although I don’t see a problem at the moment, I am uncomfortable at the commodification of wild food in the long term. It also kind of spoils the fun! This is why I only forage for myself, friends, family and to demonstrate at my teaching events. But that is not to say that any of the commercial foragers I know are in it for an easy buck. It is a highly skilled, demanding job that requires dedication and impeccable standards to come anywhere near making a living – most don’t.
Foragers as Stewards of Wild Land
Successfully foraging for wild food on a regular basis – be it for personal or economic reasons – requires an intimacy with nature and a loving stewardship of natural resources way beyond the average nature-lover. Yes, there are those that take too much of a particular species, but these, in my experience, are in the minority. Legally, any forager picking wild ingredients to sell commercially should have the landowner’s permission.
Learning to find, identify and process a diversity of wild resources removes the temptation to over-harvest any one species. Focussing on just a few varieties of easily identified “gourmet” fungi is fine for beginners, but those that do not move beyond this stage are missing out on the infinitely greater pleasures of enjoying wild food from all habitats at all times of year with a clean conscience.
Skilled foragers, with a wide repertoire, are far more clued up than most trained ecologists, rangers and landowners on what grows where and when, and how it is influenced by the weather, the climate, pollution, habitat loss and, yes, other foragers. They take what is reasonable and sustainable – after all, they have a larger vested interest than most. Foragers I know, are switched-on people with a profound love and understanding of nature that goes way beyond filling their belly or lining their pocket.
Eastern European Foragers
Much is made in some areas of the media of the exploits of Eastern European foragers, often in conjunction with the words “gangs” and “criminal”. The fact that these unpleasant articles tend to appear in right wing, poor quality rags shouldn’t be used to hide the fact that – yes – there are a high proportion of foragers are immigrants, particularly from Eastern Europe. But the following story from a friend of mine who forages for pleasure and profit around the New Forest is illuminating:
“A few years ago when I was out in the forest I was “tipped off” by a couple that there was a gang of pickers nearby with walkie talkies. I’ve never seen gangs of pickers before so I went looking. It turned out that the “gang” was in-fact two Polish families out mushroom hunting and the “walkie talkies” were rather old mobile phones.
They stopped for a picnic and I had a chat with them. I guess it helped that I’m half Polish but they certainly weren’t picking to sell. We talked mushrooms and I saw that they had about 10 ceps and a dozen assorted boletes between them. Hardly a lot! They were just out enjoying the autumnal sunshine doing what many British people would like to be able to do but don’t have the knowledge“.
The truth is, that in general, Europeans (notably French, Italians, Germans, Scandinavians, Poles, Romanians, Croatians and Russians – but really, almost any country!) are way more knowledgeable about foraging – particularly for fungi – than British people. It is far more deeply ingrained in their culture and upbringing. That we have more eastern europeans here now means that they stand out. For historical and cultural reasons eastern europeans eat a far wider range of plants and fungi than is the norm, even amongst experienced UK foragers. Foraging is also a family pursuit in eastern european countries.
Brown roll-rim, wooly milkcap and slimy spike: Three mushrooms that have traditionally been eaten in areas of eastern europe, none of which are eaten in the UK. (Note: brown roll rim is now considered potentially deadly; fleecy milkcap is toxic without extensive preparation)
Its not really surprising then, that Brits, possibly just engaging with foraging, maybe struggling to find the few “choice” edibles they can recognise, on hearing groups speaking foreign languages with baskets brimming with unrecognisable species, might jump to the wrong conclusion. And the right wing press, racists and closet racists love to jump on such stories.
Yes – of course there are some that overdo it and I have heard genuine reports from rangers and park keepers of some OTT foraging, hunting and trapping. I’m not trying to excuse that, but it is often an inconsiderate extension of what is much more “normal” behaviour in less urbanised cultures, and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for racism.
The Real Pressure on Wild Resources
This report from the US takes a close look at who is foraging in urban green spaces and what they are gathering. It recognises the wide ethnic diversity of foragers and what they seek, concluding that foraging needs to be taken seriously by those who plan and manage urban green spaces. To quote Lucy Siegle in the Guardian, “Foragers do not clean out entire ecosystems and move on like some corporate behemoth, they connect, they often replant and supplement – they make green spaces greener.”
2009 saw the formation of the Scottish Wild Harvest Association, an affiliation of non-timber forest product users. The SWHA champions a responsible approach to foraging by both commercial and recreational foragers and is a sensible voice with some proper, evidence-based research at its disposal. In late 2015, 30 or so foraging teachers and commercial foragers came together to form The Association of Foragers. This was born of an interest in mutual support and knowledge-sharing, but also to present a clear, well informed and reasonable voice for foragers, and an evidence-based response to ill-informed attitudes towards wild food. Membership is currently increasing rapidly across the world. Please read our statement of principles here.
While the odd few irresponsible foragers might be annoying, I’m afraid the real threats to ecological diversity are far more significant. Habitat destruction through unsustainable farming practices, pollution, urbanisation and a disconnect between what we eat and the landscape we seek to live in, is infinitely more destructive than an army of unmindful foragers could ever be. If we focussed a little more on stopping habitat destruction, rather than having a pop at the very intimate engagement with nature afforded by foraging, then our environment would have much better prospects.
All the foragers I mention in my list of recommended foraging websites and tweeters practice and advocate responsible harvesting.