Today on Monday Musings we have a very apt discussion to wade into – foraging. Yesterday we ran one of our popular Urban Foraging walks in Brighton, leading a small group through a couple of parks and streets of the city. We pointed out what is edible, abundant, how you can use it and the folklore and traditions that surround the things we walk past every day. But one discussion that we had, was not how we should forage, but whether we should at all.
This had arisen with the recent discussion – and argument in the Daily Mail – that foragers are stripping the New Forest bare of mushrooms. John Wright, the foraging expert linked with River Cottage (and one of our heroes) came under fire, as his paid foraging courses were blamed for the sparseness of mushrooms in the area. This accusation was quickly rubbished by Wright and River Cottage, who stated that not only do they operate within the law, but that they collect a tiny fraction of the mushrooms discovered on a walk – taking only one basket of edible mushrooms and one basket of ‘interesting’ mushrooms between the whole group. No mushroom is picked twice, and only Wright picks the mushrooms. And of course, only with permission of the landowner.Plus, the mushroom is only the reproductive organ of the living organism below ground, so saying that picking mushrooms is harmful, is quite honestly, rubbish. Where the argument against over picking stands is when the forest is laid bare of mushrooms – not perhaps from a conservation point of view, but it is indeed a sad sight.
So this is an interesting argument. With the increasing interest in foraging taking hold, how can we ensure that us, who teach the skill, are being responsible?
Frankly, I believe that the people I teach to forage – those who want to reconnect with the seasons and their landscape (with respect) and supplement their weekly shop and autumn larders with nutritious and plentiful goodies are not the problem. Like Wright, I only point out items that are so common we would have to all locally down tools and pick for a week to make any kind of dent in the harvest. Hawthorns? Japanese Roses? Nettles? Do me a favour.
We never pick items that are rare, or unusual, and if we do discover something, we look and learn.
My personal bugbear with foraging does not sit with people (like me) who run paid for foraging courses, or write books or blogs on the subject. It does not sit with people who post their foraging forays on twitter, facebook and instagram. It certainly does not sit with the individual who picks a kilo of apples on a piece of waste ground. My bugbear sits with those few unscrupulous ‘commercial foragers’ who flaunt the 50 shades of grey areas of the law – picking wherever they can, in large quantities for resale to restaurants and gastropubs. Whenever I see ‘locally foraged’ on a menu I ask questions. Where, who, when? With permission?
Foraging is about being respectful. And the vast majority of us are just that. We respect our local areas, we respect the local biodiversity and we respect the knowledge that has been gathered over generations that we risk losing forever in the eternal glow of the supermarkets.
So will I stop foraging, or teaching people how to forage? Not on your nelly. Knowledge is power and respect comes from education, not ignorance.