This has been called the year of the foragers. Every year more and more people armed with field books are tearing up the hedgerows and uprooting the fungi. All of this is likely due to the early efforts of TV culinary personalities such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and Jamie Oliver.
The rise of the modern hunter-gatherer has also been aided by the popularity of the Paleo movement and the concept of food for free in this era of austerity is certainly attractive.
However, it was only a matter of time before concerns grew over the sustainability of harvesting mother nature’s bounty. As a forager, the protection of wild plants and mushrooms is certainly concerning. If I publicise foraging am I reducing the supplies of elderflowers or fungi for myself and the next person? But more importantly, will there be enough been left behind so as not to have a negative impact on the local ecology?
It could be argued that a few individual foragers are unlikely to have a big effect and ecologists are more worried about those gathering for commercial purposes. There are sensible harvesters that forage sustainably, but, as with every industry, there are those looking to make a fast buck who gather recklessly unconcerned about the impact of their actions.
Foraging has to be done carefully, and it is ultimately counter-productive to effectively rape an area that you and others may wish to rely on in the future.
So how do we forage sustainably? Six rules to guide you:
1. Harvest the leaves – but leave the roots behind.
2. Collect the seeds and replant for next season – maybe in your own garden!
3. Replant the Crown – At the base of all plant bulbs is a plug of tissue from where the roots emerge called the “root crown.” When indigenous peoples would gather these bulbs, they would detach the root crown from the bulb and replant it into the soil. This is often enough for the plant to regenerate.
4. Fruits and Nuts are fair game. Most fruit and nuts are evolved to be consumed by animals in order to spread their seeds. Using the fruits rather than the vegetative portions is one easy way we can reduce our damage to that individual plant.
5. Forage the pests without concern. – Selectively choose species that limit a negative impact upon collecting by foraging invasive plants. Japanese knotweed is a serious invasive plant that grows very aggressively, crowding out everything, but it’s actually a wonderful edible plant.
6. Work the Percentages – A totally obvious way we’re conscientiously foraging is that we gather a small proportion of the population so that the rest of the plants can do their thing and can reproduce fruits to sustain the population. A good guide is 10 to 25% of the plant at the very most. The obvious issue with this is that if someone comes along and harvests one-tenth of the plant, and a week later another person gathers one-tenth of the plant, and a week later another person comes, very soon the larder will be bare and we’re not the only ones looking for food many animals are feeding on those very same foods and they don’t have the choice of popping along to their local Tesco.
So – everything in moderation should be your motto and always, always be mindful of sustainability as you forage. Remember once it’s gone – it may very well be gone forever.