Foraging is something human beings have been doing since the beginning of time, but in the last two centuries or so this practice has fallen by the wayside at least as a mean for survival.
Recently this activity has seen a new resurgence in modern society as a way of communing with nature and finding more healthy natural food and herbal medicine.
The term “ethical foraging” came into existence to describe the guidelines and rules foragers need to follow in order to eliminate the negative effect the harvesters of the past sometimes had on the natural surroundings. This concept includes following the laws of the area being harvested as well.
These guidelines are designed to protect nature, the person foraging, as well as the owners of the property, from being damaged in some way by harvesting wild plants.
The following tips are meant to simplify these guidelines and give the forager a set of rules to follow.
Laws of the Area
It is important to research the laws in the area being foraged. There might be a well-used hiking trail on public property, but the area close to the trail that has a nice berry bush may not be.
Most places have laws on foraging especially if the food picked is being used for monetary gain. Certain areas in the UK, for instance, will allow foraging for personal use on private property. If the harvest is going to eventually be sold, then permission is needed from the landowner.
In some case, permission to forage on private land could cost as little as a small portion of the harvest collected.
Some landowners also have a restriction on who many sets of hands can do the forages at any given time to protect the plants from over-harvesting.
A quick search online for the bylaws before setting out on a foraging expedition will save time and possibly a costly fine.
Some areas might have one or more species that is in danger of becoming extinct. This is usually due to over-harvesting but can also occur if there is a shift in weather patterns or other changes in the environment.
Endangered species lists can be found online with the various organizations that are responsible for agriculture and wildlife. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has the Natural Resources Conservation Services to provide lists of endangered species separated by state.
Expert foragers in the area are also a good resource and can usually be found on blogs or message boards.
Understand what Grows in the Region
Having a clear idea of what is abundant in the region in question and where to find the best spots for foraging will help create a foraging plan before heading out.
Often local experts like hunters and farmers will be able to provide insight on the best crops and trails. Some may even know the property owners to speak to for permission.
There are many other resources to tap into to truly understand the local wildlife and what is ripe for the picking and what needs to be left alone.
Choose Clean Areas for Foraging
It is important to be mindful of the levels of toxicity in the area being foraged. No matter how easily accessible and inviting a crop of wild edibles may be, the land it is on may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
If a large empty field was once the site of an industrial plant, then it is probably a good idea to steer clear of the immediate and surrounding areas.
Wildlife close to power lines is also exposed to pollutants as are certain lakes and streams.
If there is any question about the health of an area when foraging for edible plants always err on the side of caution. Local foragers and municipal offices may provide insight into whether the land is safe to harvest from.
Do not Over-Harvest
There are several guidelines in place so that certain forage areas are not over-harvested. Some plants may grow in abundance and have no problem replenishing year after year, but others need to be protected against eager foragers.
Never pick the last plant of any species as this could cause the extinction of that crop in the area. Following certain steps will ensure that plants have a chance to replenish so they can be harvested the next year.
One rule of thumb is to only pick a third of whatever leaves, fruits or roots are available. If everyone who happens upon the same bramble bush only picks this amount, then that will leave plenty left over for the next forager and enough to let the plant keep reproducing.
Another rule to follow is to only pick what is needed to avoid unnecessary waste. It may be tempting to harvest as much of a particular fruit found in the wild, but keep in mind the amount of time needed to properly preserve the harvest.
Some fruits like blackberries can be frozen and then cooked once thawed out, but other fruits will not stay so easy.
Know when to Harvest for the Best Quality Yield
Choosing the right time of the year to forage is important and depends on plant species or which parts of the plants are going to be harvested.
Leaves of certain plants should, for example, be harvested in the spring but the roots of the same plants might be best to harvest in the autumn.
Other plants such as dandelions should be harvested before they flower to avoid a bitter taste, so the foraging plan around them would differ from many other plants.
Some plants will taste better when harvested at different times of the day. Some flowers are sweeter earlier in the day because they have the most amount of nectar, so the timing of the harvest is also very important.
Understand how Harvesting Can Affect the Plant’s Life Cycle
Cutting flowers off of certain trees at the wrong time can result in a lack of fruit in those trees come harvest time. Understanding the life cycle of the plants and trees in the area being foraged will help keep the crops growing year after year for generations of foragers to come.
Ethical foraging encourages education and restraint when the harvesting of a particular species will cause that species long-term harm.
Identify Species Using Several Different Sources
The primary reason most people forage is for consumption of wild edibles and medicinal herbs. There are many plants with similar characteristics in nature, however, and while one may have curative effects, its close relative could be poisonous or even deadly.
Identifying plants using more than one characteristic is always the safest method. An example would be morels which are wild mushrooms popular with foragers. They have a toxic look-a-like aptly named “false morels”. The toxic mushrooms can cause serious illness but the only way to really tell the difference is to look inside. One has “brain-like” tissue on the inside while the true morel is hollow throughout.
A good rule to follow is to learn 2 or 3 plants that are abundant in the area being foraged and start with those. When these plants are recognizable and easily identified as safe, then start learning another one. It is best to know 2 or 3 really well than know 10 partially.
It is also best to never eat anything new until it has been 100% identified. There are many resources available to help identify several different characteristics of the edible harvested.
Be a Steward of Nature
The reason why so many plants make it onto the endangered list is that of the careless and thoughtless way others have harvested without respecting the needs of nature.
The responsibility lies with the ethical foragers of today to treat nature with the consideration it deserves. This includes making sure no garbage is left in the area and being careful to not crush any other wild plants while trying to reach the targeted harvest area.
Another way to care for nature is to avoid harvesting edibles that are not growing in abundance but look as if they are struggling to reproduce. Steering clear of these plants and asking others on route to do the same will help that plant replenish and grow heartier for the next year.
It is very important to teach children how to harvest responsibly when out on a family foraging expedition. This will go a long way to raising a new generation of ethical foragers who understand the importance of respecting nature.
New foragers will definitely benefit from the experience of well-seasoned foragers who can share tips and tricks on the trails.
In optimal foraging seasons, it can expand knowledge of the area by going on some group hikes to get a good idea of where the best trails are and what types of plants are available for foraging.
This is also a good time to pick the brain of the organizer and maybe get some other lesser shared tips or ask questions.
Appropriate Equipment for Ethical Foraging
Harvesting prickly bushes or spiny plants can be painful and difficult without the proper equipment. In order to make sure the trip is fun several pieces of equipment and clothing should be brought.
- A good pair of gardening gloves will protect the hands from painful scratches or splinters while trying to cut down leaves, roots or shoots.
- A trowel for plants that need to be uprooted.
- If going deep into the woods, a large knife or machete will be handy.
- Lightweight shears will help cut through stubborn branches.
- A long sleeved shirt or some sort of arm covers will protect the skin from scratches if it becomes necessary to reach deep into a plant to get at the roots or leaves.
- Long pants and socks to tuck them into will keep insects at bay or act as a protections from poisonous plants like stinging nettle.
- A bug hat with a veil will help keep pesky insects from interfering with the forage.
- A cloth sling that goes over the shoulder can be helpful as it provides room for equipment and space for wild edibles.
- A large basket may be the right transportation for fluffy plants that shouldn’t be squished or prickly plants that can’t be held against the clothing.
- Water and food if the hike is a long distance.
- A good identification guide is also a must when foraging for a new and unfamiliar species. Make sure that the plant is identified using two or more markers to differentiate between closely related species.
- A dehydrator will keep fruits, herbs, and mushrooms dry to intensify their flavor.
- Plastic containers to store berries without damaging them.
Leave Route Plan with Someone Else for Safety
If the foraging is within a residential area and consists of picking mulberries from the neighbor’s bushes, then having a safety plan is probably not needed.
If the path that leads to the best blackberries in the area consists of a two-hour hike into the woods, then leaving the exact location with a friend or family member “just in case” is a very good idea.
No one ever thinks that anything can ever happen to them, and most foraging trips end peacefully and happily, but keeping safe is not something that can be overdone. It doesn’t take any time at all to let someone know the location being foraged.
Ethical foraging can be a wonderful way of communing with nature, getting much-needed exercise and finding delicious wild fruits, nuts, and herbs to bring home for consumption. Following certain guidelines helps everyone enjoy this outdoor activity safely and with minimal impact on nature.
Understanding the laws of the area will eliminate the risk of a foraging trip getting ruined by a fine for trespassing or picking an endangered plant. It is also important to respect the dangers of incorrectly identifying a wild edible or harvesting in an area that contains pollutants.
Never take more food than can be consumed and bring appropriate equipment to cut and carry the 1/3 of the harvest taken from any abundant source.
Lastly, always be safe by letting someone know the route being taken.
A biologist, zoologist, scuba-diver, blogger and aspiring herbalist with interest in nature conservation, animal protection, herbal medicine and medicinal plants.