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The Free Range 'Energy Beyond Oil' Project – The 'Food Series' (F) Handouts

Sheet F1.
Wild Food and Foraging

Some ideas for harvesting wild foods

Version 1.2, October 2008. Produced by the Free Range Energy Beyond Oil Project
Download the colour PDF version/greyscale PDF version.

Wild food is an increasingly popular issue, being perceived as either a 'free' source of food or something that we can enjoy as a form of 'gastro-recreation'. From the work of John Seymour and Richard Mabey in the 70's, to the more recent TV programmes of Ray Mears and Bear Grylls, food foraging is promoted as an improving outdoor activity. But this approach often misses one of the most important points – wild food isn't an end in itself, but it's something that we can integrate into our existing food sourcing and preparation activity to add diversity and character to our diet.

The key thing about this briefing is that it's not a "guide" to foraging and wild food – there's plenty of them out there already, and we see no need to endlessly replicate this information. Instead we outline a framework for how you might learn more about wild food, develop your skills for food foraging, and most importantly finding ways to integrate your use of wild food within a more sustainable approach to planning your own 'food system'. There are plenty of good books out there on wild food – and we've listed a number in the bibliography at the end. What we do in this guide is try and help you get your head around the process of collecting wild foods.

Motivations and practical limitations

There's a rather romanticised, over-simplified view of wild food; you go out, pick some food and bring it home to eat. In reality it's a little more difficult: the idealised plants shown in books are often not so easily found in the countryside, especially outside of their prime flowering season; the local geology and climate of your area can have a pronounced effect on what species grow where, and how well/if they grow; in many areas of the UK, especially where mechanised arable farming dominates, the rural biodiversity has been decimated for the last fifty years and so finding the diversity of plants listed in the wild food books is not that easy (although you might find small, undisturbed pockets here and there). For these reasons foraging isn't something that can be taught or demonstrated – it's something that must be learned and understood through practical experience.

Collecting wild food is not like going to the supermarket – you don't just turn up and eat! You need to get to know an area, understand the wild ecology and how it varies from site to site, and in order to do this you'll need to visit your foraging area(s) on a regular basis. Some plants, or rather the parts of the plant that we're interested in (flowers, fresh leaf tips or berries) might only be available for a few weeks, or even a few days, and to be there at the right time you have to regularly visit and 'live with' the land.

The need to gain "understanding" of wild foods is also important when we select influences to develop our own knowledge. If we follow the 'survivalist' mode of learning (generalising, Bear Grylls and similar types of survival programmes) we learn to take from nature without necessarily understanding the relationships between plants, the environment and the sustainable use of those resources – in this sense wild food is just something you do for a day out. Instead we'd recommend that you concentrate on integrating wild foods into your everyday diet by understanding how they grow, the seasons for different wild foods, and the use of additional skills such as preserving (e.g. jam making) to make the short wild food season stretch to a larger part of the year.

To get the most from wild foods we have to develop an understanding of the ecology of the countryside and how that influences what's available, but also the historic relationship of rural communities to wild foods in order to understand what we can do with them (similar to the approach of Ray Mears and other ethno-botanists who try to understand how humans have historically used plants as a sustainable resource).

Some rules and restrictions
Wild food shouldn't be seen as an unrestricted natural larder – the free counterpart to the modern supermarket. Quite apart from the ecological implications, there simply isn't enough land for our present population to live like hunter-gathers (the Stone Age hunter-gatherer population of the British Isles numbered only a few hundred thousand). For this reason you have to be very careful how you harvest wild foods, both to protect the environment and your own health:
  • Don't strip the food resource bare – only pick a small amount from each stand in order to preserve the plant (especially important for annual plant species where removing all the flowers or seeds in one year will largely eliminate the population in the following few years);
  • Don't keep picking from the same areas – try and vary the location in order to lessen your impacts (this is especially important near the urban fringe where others might be picking too);
  • Don't pick from protected areas such as wildlife reserves, sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) etc. – some of the endangered species that are protected on that site may be dependent upon the same food plants that you pick!;
  • Yanking stalks from plants can damage them and encourage disease (especially perennials and shrubs) – if possible use a knife to cut the stems (see the later section on 'knives');
  • If you can't clearly and unequivocally identify something, don't eat it – there are a number of edible plants that look similar to inedible or toxic species (e.g., cow parsley and fool's parsley);
  • Always consider potential hazards, not just physical (e.g. falling in a ditch/river or cuts from thorns) but also pollution – this is especially true in urban areas where historic land uses and more recent fly tipping can contaminate land, but even in rural areas agricultural run-off, road run-off and waste dumping can give rise to toxic contamination;
  • For many common wild foods (a.k.a. "weeds") you can easily take a few plants or seeds and sow them in your own garden where they may also grow easily (perhaps as, if not more, easily than many domesticated/cultivated species) – this will reduce your impact on the countryside.

Learning to forage

Developing ways to integrate wild foods into your life is a process of learning – in turn that means committing time to go out into the countryside, learning to identify plants at different stages of the growing season, and learning the various methods to cook and preserve the produce that you harvest.

We've broken down this process into four steps:

Step 1. Pick your foraging area(s)

The first thing to do is pick an area. That requires that you have access to the countryside (see section 2). You can forage in many cities and towns but this can be fraught with difficulties: many open spaces in towns may have been subject to previous contaminating land uses (or why would the area not have been developed already!) or they might be fly-tipped; the deposition of pollutants from nearby industrial processes might create problems of contamination; and in urban areas the management of open spaces by local authorities is often, to save money, based upon chemicals. Looking at old maps in the local library will tell you about previous polluting land uses, and the local council will have information about any noxious processes in your area at the present (from the council's 'pollution control register').

In order to develop your knowledge of plants you'll need to have easy, regular access to the area in order to 'live with it' – getting to know/understand the diversity of different plants and fruits over the year and being able to get there at just the right time to harvest them. The best way to do this is to incorporate it into some form of regular recreation – going for walks, exercise, or just walking the dog.

The diversity of plants is governed by existing land uses – especially agriculture, since some plants (especially annual 'weeds') may have been sprayed out of existence – and the geology or soil type of the area. The soil type influences the acidity of the soil and certain plants will only grow where the soil is acid or alkaline, or in the case of a number of species that hug the coast, salty. Some plants love wet or boggy ground, whilst others will only grow in well drained soil. The reason for this variation is the ecology of plants – in order to thrive certain plants have developed preferences that give them advantages in certain ecological niches this allow them to grow faster than the other plants around them.

In order to manage your impact on the land you need to forage over as large an area as possible – and better still, on more than one site. With experience you might find that you forage on more than one area in order to source different types of plant – e.g., a woodland area, hedgerows, grasslands and by waterways. As you develop your knowledge you can also forage in these different environments in order to get a regular supply of something edible over the course of the year.

Step 2. Over a year or two walk your foraging area regularly and try to identify as much as you can

Books give pictures of lovely flowering plants, but as the flowering season might only be a few weeks often when you come across these plants they won't be in flower. To understand which plant is which you need to be able to see it at different stages in its life-cycle, and to do that you have to go out regularly. This might sound a chore but it's extremely good for you. It's not just about getting regular exercise, but having regular contact with wild places is good psychologically (Google or Wikipedia the word 'biophilia').

To forage from the land you will of course need to have legal access otherwise you will be committing the civil offence of 'trespass'. There are four ways to access the land legally:

All nature reserves, be they local or legally protected sites of special scientific interest, should be avoided since, either by law or by the conditions of access, picking is usually not permitted. Public parks are technically open to the public, although you may not want to pick anything there because of the tendency for these areas to be regularly sprayed.

Step 3. Gradually begin to collect wild foods

As you use books to develop your skills at identifying plants you'll be able to begin picking leaves and fruits, and even excavating roots. Due to the historical importance of wild foods picking them is not a criminal offence. Section 4, subsection 3, of the Theft Act 1968 makes it clear that –

Whilst picking may not be theft, it might be theft if you uproot a tree or shrub and take it away (certain roots, like dandelion or burdock are a grey area since as 'weeds' they have no economic value). The exception is of course plants which are protected or endangered species – these are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (section 13/Schedule 8) and other regulations (you can get a list from your local library, or on-line, but most wild food guides will tell you whether the species is protected). Damaging these plants is a criminal offence. Also, unlike plants, all wild animals are someone's property, and taking them is technically poaching (but there is a grey area relating to finding an animal that's died without being trapped or shot – e.g. road kill).

The reason that you need to observe plants over their whole growing cycle is that most identification books show them in flower – at which point there is often little doubt about identifying them. By watching the plants grow and then identifying them for certain when they flower you'll be able to identify them with greater certainty at any time of the year. However, the golden rule of foraging still applies – if you don't know what it is, don't eat it!

Common wild foods and their uses

An individual beech tree produces nuts every third year – nuts are edible, and can be pressed for oil.

The most popular hedgerow fruit, widespread in most hedges. Good raw, nice cooked with apple, wonderful made into jam.

Berries can be eaten raw or made into jams/preserves (if you can get them before the birds!).

A common garden weed, it's one of the best wild green salads. It is also one of the few leafy foods available in the Autumn and early Spring.

The very young shoots are spicy, like rocket, but as they get older they become fibrous and need to be cooked.

Young dandelion leaves can be eaten as salad, but older leaves can be bitter and need to be cooked. The roots, towards the end of the year when they are large, can be harvested and boiled or roasted – but sometimes they can be rather bitter. If roasted until dry it can be ground to make a coffee substitute.

Dog rose/wild rose
Dog/wild rose flowers can be turned into rose petal jam (think spreadable Turkish delight!). Dried they can also make an aromatic tea. The rosehips can be processed to make a syrup or jelly.

A common hedge shrub. The flowers can be used to flavour cakes, to make cordial or cooked in batter to make fritter (but you have to separate the tasty flower from the bitter green stem!). The berries can be turned into fruit jelly, or eaten raw, but don't eat too much as they have a laxative effect.

Fat hen
A garden weed that can be eaten/used like spinach.

The leaf shoots, just after opening (before they toughen up) can be eaten raw. The berries can be eaten, but you must separate (or just spit) the stone out because it contains cyanide.

Only the larger hazel trees produce nuts. Nuts can be eaten raw, but taste better roasted (in the shell).

Hedge garlic/jack-by-the-hedge
Found in hedges in the spring, the leaves can be eaten in salads.

Although difficult to collect from such a large tree, the flowers can be dried to make a herbal tea.

A ubiquitous weed, but one with high levels of vitamin C, iron and protein! Young shoots can be eaten after wilting over a flame or steaming/boiling water. Older leaves must be boiled and sieved to extract the nutritious pulp. Dried the leaves also can be used to make tea.

Ramsons/wild garlic
Easy to find in wet and boggy woodland. The leaves have a mild onion/garlic flavour and can be eaten raw. The bulbs taste like shallots and can be eaten raw (beware! – don't confuse with the bulbs of poisonous bluebell and other species that grow in similar conditions)

A widespread weed, the roots were once commonly eaten like potato/parsnip.

Sweet chestnut
Not as popular a tree as the inedible horse chestnut tree so it is hard to find. The nuts are large and mostly made of carbohydrate, not protein – good roasted or raw, and can be ground into nut flour.

A note about knives

As noted earlier, when harvesting foods it's far better to cut the plant because it causes less damage, and you might also want to cut/peel and eat it on the spot. This of course necessitates carrying a knife which, in the current media panics about knife crime, is not a popular activity. Contrary to the view portrayed by the media it is not against the law to carry a knife provided that it conforms to certain restrictions. Section 139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 makes it legal to carry a folding pen knife with a cutting blade no longer than three inches. Generally the following restrictions apply: no knife can be carried on any school premises (Offensive Weapons Act 1996); it must not be an 'automatic' or 'gravity' opened flick or butterfly knife (Offensive Weapons Act 1959); and it must not be disguised as something innocent (Criminal Justice Act 1988). Note that any knife which is not banned (as outlined in the list above) or has a blade longer than three inches (e.g., a hunting knife) can still be carried in public but you must have a good lawful reason for doing so (section 139, Criminal Justice Act 1988).

Step 4. Learn to cook at home in order to develop preserving skills

Many wild foods can be eaten raw – which, if you take a hunk of (own-made!) bread makes a wonderful picnic. Others need to be cooked. For example, young nettles need to be heated (over a flame or in boiling water) to neutralise the sting, but later in the season they have to be boiled in order to extract the edible pulp from the indigestible fibre.

Most wild food books give details on preparation, but to get real value from wild foods you need to preserve them to make them last for longer periods:

There are many good books on home preserving, jam making and freezing, so we won't go into any more detail here.

What to look for

There are no hard and fast rules on what to pick because each area, and the environments in those areas (hedgerows, grasslands and waterways) are different. There are certain things which are ubiquitous, such as nettles, dandelions and elder. The other less obvious species listed in the many wild food books have to be sought out. The table on the previous page gives some ideas.

It's best to begin with the really simple things that don't require any extra effort to consume – edible leaves, berries and nuts. As you progress and find more things to eat you'll probably get into cooking, especially the common foods that require cooking (nettles) or roasting (dandelion roots).

How far you go depends entirely on your own preference. If you just want to pick blackberries and make jam, that's fine, but the important point is this – for the average person you cannot practically sustain your entire diet from wild food. Wild food produces nutrients at a lower cropping density than human agriculture, and so it's impractical to think that we could sustain ourselves from wild food. What wild food can do is add diversity and practical fun to our diet. At the most basic level, wild food is a link we can use to understand and have a relationship with nature.


Food for Free (the glossy coffee-table version), Richard Mabey, published by Collins, 2001. ISBN 000 220159 3. £16.99. A very good beginner's practical guide to using wild foods in the UK with both identification tips and recipes.

Food for Free (the gem pocket guide version), Richard Mabey, published by Collins, 2004. ISBN 000 718303 8. £4.99. The pocket version of the above to take out with you.

Wild Food, Ray Mears and Gordon Hillman, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 2007. ISBN 9780 3408 2790 1. £20. An excellent view of the historical relationship between aboriginal peoples and plants, but also very good for the more advanced forager who wants to take more time/trouble to extend their use of a wider range of wild plants.

Plants for a Future – Edible & Useful Plants for a Healthier World, Ken Fern, Permanent Publications, (2nd ed.) 2007. ISBN 9781 8562 3011 7. £19.95. Excellent book! – not much identification information, but loads of uses for hundreds of plants.

Hedgerow Medicine – Harvest and Make Your Own Herbal Remedies, Julie Bruton-Seal/Matthew Seal, Merlin Unwin Books, 2008. ISBN 9781 8736 7499 4. £16.99. Lots of recipes that use 'weeds' to make you feel better and healthier.

Culpeper's Colour Herbal, David Potterton, published by W. Foulsham & Co., 1983. ISBN 0572 01152 0. Going beyond food to look at other uses for plants, this particular edition of Culpeper's Herbal contrasts the old and new medicinal uses of plants with some tips for their use (this is an old book, but it's by far the best version – you can usually find it in libraries or from second hand bookshops).

Jekka's Complete Herb Book (revised edition), Jekka MvVicar, published by The Royal Horticultural Society, 2007. ISBN 9781 8562 6741 0, £25. Primarily a book on garden herbs, but it also covers many related herbs that grow wild in the countryside.

Wild Flowers (gem pocket guide third edition), Martin Walters, published by Collins, 2005. ISBN 000 717854 9. £4.99. A handy pocket guide to most common wild flowers.

Trees (gem pocket guide), Alastair Fitter, published by Collins, 2004. ISBN 9780 0071 8306 7. £4.99. A handy pocket guide to common trees and shrubs.

Mushrooms (gem pocket guide), Patrick Harding, published by Collins, 2004. ISBN 9780 0071 8307 4. £4.99. A handy pocket guide to fungi, but given the nature of the subject matter don't rely on this book alone – use one of the more comprehensive guides photographic guides.

The Great Encyclopaedia of Mushrooms (English edition), Jean-Louis Lamaison and Jean-Marie Polese, published by Könemann, 2005. ISBN 3 8331 1239 5. A very good guide to all types of mushroom, but better than most because of its use of photographs rather than drawings.

Produced by the Free Range 'Energy Beyond Oil' Project – http://www.fraw.org.uk/
© 2008 Paul Mobbs/The Free Range Network. This document has been released under The Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike License ('by-nc-sa', version 3).