A beginner’s guide to foraging for wild ingredients in the UK

Foraging responsibly and discovering the world of wild food is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reconnect with nature. We speak to foraging experts for advice on starting out in the UK.

Thursday, July 9, 2020,
By Connor McGovern
Eating with the seasons and sourcing food from the wild has long been an approach revered ...

Eating with the seasons and sourcing food from the wild has long been an approach revered by chefs and restaurateurs, but is now seeing a more mainstream resurgence. 

Photograph by Getty Images

Why is foraging becoming so popular?

Eating with the seasons and sourcing food from the wild has long been an approach revered by chefs and restaurateurs, with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage in Dorset and Simon Rogan of L’Enclume, in The Lakes, some of the food industry’s best-known champions. And as awareness grows around the need for sustainable, local food sources to decrease our produce’s carbon footprint, foraging has seen a resurgence. But for those in the know, it’s about more than simply picking plants for dinner.

“It’s an integral part of being human,” says Martin Bailey. Based in Bristol, Martin heads up Go Foraging, which runs guided foraging walks in Wales, the South and the South West. “It goes back to our hunter-gatherer days, when foraging was part of our survival toolkit. It was vital, and I think that’s the important thing behind foraging.”

For all its downsides, the coronavirus lockdown this spring has sparked a renewed appreciation of the great outdoors, fuelling a desire among many of us to get outside and interact with nature in some way — including foraging.

“It’s a form of mindfulness. Foraging makes you look at both the bigger and smaller picture and puts you in the present,” says John Rensten. After two decades of running Forage London in the capital, John relocated to Dorset, where he still organises numerous foraging events, both urban and rural. “You’ll soon realise there’s so much hiding in plain sight,” he says. “That realisation can be quite transformative.”

For all its downsides, the coronavirus lockdown has sparked a renewed appreciation of the great outdoors, fuelling a desire among many of us to get outside and interact with nature in some way — including foraging.

Photograph by Getty Images

Where’s a good place to start?

Foraging might conjure images of secluded woodland walks with a basket in hand, bulging with mushrooms and edible flowers. But with over 80% of the UK population living in towns and cities, escaping to remote forests and the like isn’t always easy. “The easiest place to start is literally on your doorstep — your garden, if you have one,” says Bailey. “Pick three or four plants and really go to town on them. Reliable sources can tell you what to pick, what parts do what, and so on. It’s endless.”

One in eight UK households don’t have a garden, although most of us live closer to Mother Nature’s plentiful larder than we might think. Rensten suggests heading to the park to discover it.

“Start there before thinking about trying somewhere far away,” he says. “There could be so much hiding in plain sight in your local park; there were 180 different plant species in my local north London park.”

Once you’ve got to grips with what’s on offer nearby, there are countless possibilities. The UK is blessed with a rich variety of ecosystems that are a haven for foraging, from mixed, ancient woodland to hedgerows that thrive alongside railway lines and canal towpaths.

“Woodland and hedgerows are actually some of the best places to forage,” says Helen Keating, content manager at the Woodland Trust. “In those habitats alone, you’re bound to come across edible plants wherever you go, such as hawthorn leaves, nettles, garlic mustard, wild garlic, blackberries, elder or sloes, dependent on the season.”

How do I know what’s legal and what’s not?

Many potential foragers may feel put off by legal grey areas. Generally speaking, foraging is permitted in the vast majority of public spaces, including parks, beaches, nature reserves, woodlands and hedgerows, with one important proviso: it’s illegal to dig up or remove a plant (this includes algae, lichens and fungi) without permission from the landowner or occupier. Furthermore, some species are specially protected; you can check a list of these here and if you’re ever in doubt, speak to the landowner first.

The plants you pick are also likely to support scores of nearby animals, so it’s always best to pick from areas that have a plentiful supply. “It’s easy to get excited and pick lots but it’s not good practice to take an entire plant from one area. We live in such abundance and there's no need to panic-forage,” says Bailey. Rather than depleting a habitat of a particular plant, instead try and pick smaller quantities from various patches, as there’s usually always plenty around. “We’re part of our local ecosystem, too, and it’s important to remember that,” says Bailey.

When it comes to ingredients, mushrooms often spring to mind as a danger area. These are some of the best-known yet least-understood foraged foods; there are tens of thousands of species of fungi in the UK alone, of which only a tiny percentage are of much culinary use.

Photograph by Getty Images

Can I forage year-round?

Yes — part of the beauty of foraging is that it’s a truly year-round activity, changing as the months come and go. In a country with such changeable weather as the UK, However, while plants are known to be ‘in season’, the reality is a little more nuanced.

“Seasons don't fit into neat categories,” explains Bailey. “There’s a lot of crossover.” For example, the best time to pick nettle leaves is the first few weeks of spring but they can also be harvested again until early summer, if they’ve been cut back. One plant can even provide different offerings at different times of year, such as roses, which flower in mid- to late spring and produce hips towards the end of summer. “You’ll learn more if you can go to a spot more regularly, learning through the seasons,” he adds.

Seasons aside, some plants are highly endemic to their environment, so exploring an area is all part of the enjoyment. “There are all sorts of local favourites, too,” says Keating. “You can find plants like sea buckthorn and march samphire on the coast and things like bilberries on heathland and moorland. Cobnuts are famous around Kent, and laver is a speciality in Wales and along Britain’s west coast.”

Discover our year-round foraging calendar

How do I know what to pick?

Dandelions, nettles, roses, blackberries — even the most inexperienced forager will be surprised at how many wild edibles they can already name.

“Start off with things you recognise,” says Rensten. “If you know what the cabbage family smells like and you cross-reference things with a little basic botany, you’ll soon be able to forage for members of the same family.”

Mint, for example, is easily recognised by its strong smell, square stems and opposing pairs of leaves. With these criteria alone, you can forage for all kinds of species of wild mint. Wild garlic is identifiable by its long, flat, pointed leaves and pungent scent ,while ox-eye daisies are perfectly edible and closely resemble a larger version of the common daisy. 

However hard it might seem at first, it’s important not to abandon your instincts and senses. “Many of us have become so removed from nature that it’s hard to make that intuitive judgement and make the step to eating wild food,” says Rensten.

The importance of using your senses is something Bailey also stresses. “Come with an inquisitive mind,” he says, “and spend some time looking at a plant and what’s around it. You’ll look after nature better if you approach it that way.”

But whatever you do, use your eyes, ears, nose and fingers to identify plants but don’t taste unless you’re absolutely certain — it’s seldom worth the risk.

To avoid any foraging faux pas, head out on an organised, expert-led walk. To find an guide local to you, consult the Assocation of Foragers — a self-regulated consortium of wild food connoisseurs, many of whom have specific areas of expertise such as fungi, berries or coastal plants.

What should I be wary of?

Before you set off, it’s a good idea to do a little background research into the history of the area you plan to forage in. Avoid brownfield sites, as decades of industry are likely to have affected the soil and, in turn, the plants themselves.

When it comes to ingredients, mushrooms often spring to mind as a danger area. These are some of the best-known yet least-understood foraged foods; there are tens of thousands of species of fungi in the UK alone, of which only a tiny percentage are of much culinary use. Edible varieties, such as ceps and chanterelles, thrive in woodland areas in this country, but despite this, the British have a slightly mycophobic mind set, says Rensten. “There are many misconceptions in the UK around mushrooms,” he says. “There’s a foraging disconnect that you don’t have in the likes of Poland or Latvia, where there’s a strong tradition of picking fungi.”

If you’re keen to pick your own mushrooms, then the best approach is to head out with someone who knows their stuff. “The world of fungi seems impenetrable to many,” says Bailey, “so they come on a walk and learn more. That way, they get to know some species and can easily build a repertoire by cross-referencing books and other reliable sources.”

However, while fungi-hunting can often seem like a minefield, it’s worth remembering that plants can be just as dangerous, with the foxglove, deadly nightshade and hemlock among the best-known poisonous specimens. Rensten suggests being strict with what you take home with you. “When I find something I can’t identify, I ask myself: do I know what this is? Can I put it into a ‘food’ category? If not, then it’s not going in the basket.”

More info

Hedgerow (River Cottage Handbook No.7), by John Wright, is packed with legal and practical guidance on foraging. RRP £16.99 (Bloomsbury).

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