Foraging is an inspiring food-focused outdoor treasure hunt. It gets the whole family outside and excited about nature and the local environment. But before you pull on your boots, there’s a few things to keep in mind.
You’ll need to understand what is safe to eat and where to find it. Also, to make sure you don’t accidentally become a scrumper (someone who steals apples!), you need to know what laws there are around taking food from the wild.
Is Foraging Worth the Effort?
Foraging is the act of gathering wild food for free, so if you like free fresh food then yes, it’s worth the effort! There will be days when you don’t find much at all, but the fresh air and exercise will compensate for empty baskets.
As you learn more about the types of food you can gather it becomes even more exciting. Most of us recognise blackberries and sweet chestnuts for example. But what about the less well known, such as pignuts? (These are from the carrot family, by the way, and taste like a nutty celery-radish hybrid, if you can imagine one.)
It’s worth investing in a foraging guide if your edible plant knowledge is thin.
When and Where Can I Go Foraging?
Successful foraging follows the seasons. The autumn is most abundant, but you can successfully forage with the family all year round if you know how. Wild garlic grows constantly, as do nettles, chickweed and seaweed.
Where you can go depends on your surrounding area. Local woods are a good option as are footpath hedgerows. You’ll find quieter areas are more abundant because they are visited less. If you’re stuck for routes, the Ramblers Association publish walks on their website. If you need to take a pushchair or you have mobility difficulties, local councils publish footpath trails with accessibility grades that are worth checking out.
If you’re able to read a map, follow a quiet byway and see what you can find. Just make sure you stick to marked footpaths and you’re home by sunset.
What’s Easy to Find?
You can forage for a wide variety of foods, but only pick what you intend to eat or turn into jams and drinks. The easiest foods to spot are nuts, berries, and apples. If you follow your nose, wild garlic and wild thyme are easy spots too. Mushrooms are a great find if you’re careful about the species. Be warned, there are many poisonous fungi so be absolutely sure you’ve found an edible one.
It’ll help if you read up on your favourite ingredients. For example, wild garlic prefers damp ground, so you’re not likely to find any on a hill. Field mushrooms give the game away with their name. These pale mushrooms are often found in open fields in large numbers, especially if the ground has recently been disturbed.
Apples are interesting forage. You’ll often find all kinds of different species alongside busy roads. This is because people throw their apple cores away en-route – and they take root!
Blackberries are hedgerow fruits so you’ll find them along footpath banks and field hedges. A word of warning here – don’t overreach. Falling into a blackberry hedge is not a pleasant experience, take my word for it.
To help you keep a lookout for great foraging finds, here’s a calendar of what you may discover throughout the year.
Ground elder, perennial wall rocket, pignut, watercress, sweet cicely, wild garlic, hops, horseradish, black mustard, borage, broom, seaweed.
All the above plus wild thyme, cleavers, nettle, dandelion leaves, fennel, elderflowers, common mallow, gooseberry, wild marjoram, chamomile, wild strawberry, plums, sloe berries, crab apples.
All the above plus apples, blackberries, damsons, pennywort, all types of nut, rosehips, mushrooms. Autumn is the busiest season.
Common sorrel, wild garlic, hairy bittercress, nettle, chickweed, dandelion root, hawthorn berry.
What Equipment Will I Need to Forage With?
Sturdy non-slip shoes are vital if you’re planning to walk around hedgerows, woods and open fields in all weathers. Sensible clothing will keep you comfortable too. If you’re looking for hedgerow fruits for example, wear long sleeves to protect you against brambles.
It’s also worth bringing along the following as part of your family foraging kit:
- A basket, rucksack or foraging bag
- An identification book (and your glasses if you need them!)
- A sense of humour
Tips for Foraging With the Kids
Kids love the outdoors but when foraging, bring some snacks. They’ll be expecting food and all the fresh air will make them hungry. Nothing spoils a family walk like a hangry child.
Children also enjoy taking their own foraging bag and a child appropriate identification book. If you can’t find one, try printing pictures of easy to spot forage such as blackberries and dandelions.
Keep a very close eye on anything a child picks as they are likely to eat it straight away. Deadly nightshade berries look like blackberries and when ripening they resemble blueberries. A child will be so excited they won’t hesitate to eat them. Teach them to avoid anything at dog-wee height in busier areas. Unfortunately, this is the level smaller children can reach so take extra care.
It’s good practice to try a small amount of forage before eating the whole amount, even if you’re sure you know what it is. People are often caught out by similar-looking foods, even experienced foragers. Always err on the side of caution.
The Law Around Foraging
Foraging is a legal activity in the UK but it is illegal to take food from a landowner without permission. It is generally OK to take foods overhanging the side of a hedge or those which have fallen such as apples. But take care that you don’t accidentally trespass. Stay on common land, open access land or a public right of way.
Obviously, farmer’s crops should be left alone. Even the tempting sweetcorn that sways in the summer breeze! You’ll find it dry and tough anyway as it’s often grown for cattle food.
Trespassing aside, always follow The Woodland Code. This means taking care where you step. Trampling down wildflowers and delicate ecosystems in your haste to grab food is detrimental to the environment.
It’s also important not to collect every last piece of your finds. Always leave enough to grow back. Plants don’t regenerate from nothing and wild creatures depend on these food sources for survival, especially in the winter months. They can’t just nip to Waitrose if they run out. Some woodlands are so over-picked for mushrooms that they’ve stopped growing there.
Connecting With Nature
Foraging isn’t simply about free food, it’s also about connecting with nature.
Smelling and nibbling leaves, fruits and roots in the countryside is an absolute pleasure. So enjoy the great outdoors. Take large cleansing breaths and shake off that air-conditioned office environment. Because it’ll be Monday morning before you know it!