If you have ever been on one of our tours before, you know that we always start off with a health and safety briefing before we head out for our walk. We of course prioritize our guests' wellbeing, but more than that we very much want to set an example for why foraging in a safe and conscious manner not only keeps you from harm but also the land in which you have come to learn about. We decided that it would be good for us to discuss this topic in a blog post, as lockdown has yielded a higher level of interest in foraging than we have seen for several years. With lack of other accessible activities, folks are very keen to head out for walks these days. As a result, the desire to understand our natural spaces and come to recognize the amazing food sources, natural medicines and generally fascinating plants that are available to us for basically free is more popular than ever. And as wonderful as it is to have so many people engaging with their natural surroundings so actively, we must remember that foraging is a practice that requires careful thought, study, and critical thinking in order to be done so successfully.
Part of our tours – as you can see in our name – is of course folklore. We like to encompass both the fun and memorable folk tales of times past as well as the traditional viewpoint our ancestors held regarding our natural resources. It was common for our forbearers to recognize the balance that was to be maintained in nature. Nothing comes to us for free, and folk beliefs recognized this. If one were to take from nature, it was therefore only fitting to return the favour by providing the spirits of the land an offering. Typical items offered were those that had required energy in order to be produced, such as milk or bread. This is a basic principle in early folk practices. As foragers today, we should keep in mind this ideal whenever we take from the land. Not only in a spiritual sense, but in a practical light we should always remember that the creation of the fruits, plants and fungi we are foraging required energy. If we take without keeping balance in mind, we are not foraging correctly.
A mature Shaggy Inkcap Mushroom with open cap and signature inky residue
Having said that, our very first rule of foraging and one we regard most important is to only take what is growing in abundance in order to ensure that you can leave a healthy portion of whatever it is you are foraging alone. Not only are we doing this for the environment and wildlife, but in order to ensure you have more to forage either later in the season or for years to come; it is only practical to be able to leave a healthy amount of your chosen plant or fungi remaining. I was recently speaking to a lovely estate owner and she reported to me that with this current trend in foraging, folks have been unfortunately completely clearing her land of all the plants, berries and so on. Not only is this detrimental to the health of the ecosystem and the wildlife that rely on it, but it also affects the foraging opportunities for following seasons.
So, once you have found something that is growing in abundance and you have decided it is fine to forage, Ashley and I have some tips for ensuring foraging is being done sustainably. Most folks really enjoy the prospect of foraging for fungi. A tip we always give to those looking for delicious wild mushrooms is to ensure that the cap of the mushroom has opened fully. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as the Shaggy Inkcap, that really should only be foraged when it is very young – but again we recommend you only harvest such fungi when you can see others of the same species are also growing around it. By harvesting only after the caps have opened, you are ensuring that the mushroom has had the opportunity to spread its spores and thus you will hopefully have more mushrooms to harvest later on. For plants, it is ideal to never completely uproot it. Unless you are foraging specifically for the roots, you should do your best to not kill the plant and allow it to continue to grow.
Foraging for bunches of ripe Sloe Berries growing on a Blackthorn tree in early Autumn (to be steeped for sloe gin!)
As much as we recommend to always keep in mind the health of the environment we are foraging in, it is of course of utmost importance to ensure your own health. Our second rule of foraging is to always, always, make absolute certain you have identified the item you are foraging correctly. Most people think of mushrooms when we talk about this rule, but plants and berries can be just as dangerous if misidentified. In order to not harm yourself, we recommend that anyone getting into the world of foraging seek advice from an expert. Coming on a tour like the one we offer and having an educational experience in the field is always much more impressionable than just watching YouTube videos. But having said that, we would never discount the value of such resources. The internet does have its place in learning, but please use it with caution. We can confirm that the best resource to learn on your own is in actual books. Ashley and I always recommend purchasing at least two books in order to cross reference your finds to be extra certain that you have identified something correctly. Some books may have slightly differing photographs or illustrations, or varying information. By being able to refer to different literary resources, identification becomes much more concrete. We do of course use phone apps as well ourselves, as many are quite good these days, but do so with caution. We have had several occasions where the apps have misidentified both plants and fungi.
Which brings me to the third rule Ashley and I stand by: always forage with a friend. It is always beneficial to have someone with you who can challenge you on the correct identification of your finds. Or as I often say on tour, it is always good to have someone around to say, “Perhaps you shouldn’t put that in your mouth.” And if you were to get in trouble for any reason – foraging or otherwise – at least you have someone with you who could help. Wandering into the wilderness alone is never recommended, regardless if you know the area well or not.
Roman Chamomile found growing alongside crop field verges in mid Summer.
Jelly Ear Mushrooms found on dead tree stumps in our local forest in Autumn.
Most people will find that engaging with the natural world in a group or with a companion lends itself to much more fulfilling experiences. Creating memories we cherish of the great outdoors with those we love to live and learn with, tends to allow for much greater growth, understanding and integration of all the lessons nature has to offer. We connect both to the land and to others through sharing meaningful experiences of nature and wildlife with one another, and engaging in discussion about them. Reconnecting both to nature and with those we share the world with is much more impactful when the two are united, rather than apart; focused solely on one without the wisdom of the other is a mistake often made these days. Nature and people have always benefited from connecting hand in hand and side by side, evolving alongside one another in mutual respect and reciprocity. We seem to have lost that element of community connection, education, and engagement with nature, but we forge much stronger bonds by engaging in the natural world together (through disciplines such as foraging!). Together, rather than in separation, we can progress towards building more conscious ways of moving through the world as a collective; as part of the biosphere we all share.
Now that you have read through our advice and foundational rules for foraging safely and sustainably, we would now like to encourage you to get outside and engage with your natural environment. We hope this blog has given you some confidence and inspiration in taking your first steps if you are thinking about venturing into the wondrous world of foraging! The best way to learn is through hands-on experiences, and the natural world can offer those aplenty. Download your plant identification apps, grab your foraging books, get together with a friend (or whomever is in your support bubble these days!) and head out into whatever part of the natural world that is accessible to you. Remember to enjoy every one of your foraging experiences and ultimately, love what you learn.