Where foraging’s concerned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch

C J Schuler
112516021 1 300x199 Where foraging’s concerned, there’s no such thing as a free lunch

(Getty Images)

Most Thursdays, workload permitting, I volunteer for the London Wildlife Trust at Sydenham Hill Wood. It’s a scarce pocket of woodland – some of it ancient – in the middle of south London. This week the wildflowers were in bloom: woodruff, lesser stichwort, bugle and herb Robert – all indicator species of ancient woodland. Unfortunately this time of year brings out another, less welcome species: the Idiotic Scavenger.

Normally, the white star-like flowers of wild garlic (ramsons) – another indicator species, which can take hundreds of years to establish itself – would extend in great drifts beneath the trees, but this year, like last, hordes of idiots inspired by TV chefs have torn up great clumps of it, trampling the rest in the process.

The aficionados of this inane foodie fad seem to believe that by gathering wild garlic, or samphire, or fungi, they are somehow getting in touch with nature. I recently saw some airhead blathering on the internet about how eating food from the wild made them feel “grounded”. But rather than getting in touch with nature, they are ignorantly and selfishly destroying it.

Last year’s assault on the ramsons in Sydenham Wood took place after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recommended them on his TV show. Fearnley-Whittingstall says he’s committed to ethical food production, so I’m sure he wouldn’t approve of viewers foraging in a designated nature reserve.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not have an automatic right to forage. The 1968 Theft Act permits the picking of
flowers, fruit or foliage growing wild, but there are exceptions. If it is done for commercial gain, it is theft. It is not permitted at all where local byelaws prohibit it: on any National Trust land, for example, and in public parks and nature reserves. The law on the matter is explained here.

What’s more, it’s not just individuals who are at it; much foraging is done on a commercial basis to supply fashionable restaurants and shops. One local deli was recently advertising wild garlic “picked in Dulwich Woods”. Some of these professional foragers are utterly unscrupulous, denuding woods and hedgerows on an industrial scale.

Foraging is not part of the solution; it’s part of the problem. It’s no more acceptable than grabbing a duck from your local park and turning it into confit de canard. Nor does it establish a connection with nature in any meaningful sense. Even in the unlikely event that that you could gather 10 per cent of your food from the wild – and heaven forbid that anyone should try – you would still be getting 90 per cent of it from the supermarket. Get real.

If you want to eat food from the wild, try letting the dandelions, nettles and other edible plants we consider “weeds” flourish in your garden. They’d also enrich the local environment by providing food and habitat for insects and thus for birds. And if you really want to “reconnect with nature”, join your local wildlife conservation volunteers. You will quickly learn to identify many wild plants, not with the beady, acquisitive eye of the foodie, but with an understanding of their importance to the wider biosphere, and will learn to gather them in a responsible, sustainable manner – if it doesn’t put you off the idea of foraging altogether.

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