Back in May, The Guardian ran a headline that read “Excessive foraging for wild garlic and mushrooms in UK ‘a risk to wildlife’”. The article spoke about nature’s larder, a finite resource, being depleted by forager’s taking too much, selling the goods commercially and harming already fragile ecosystems. I forwarded the article to Liss forager Helen McAra to seek her opinion. Her reply suggested there was much to talk about, so we penciled in a date for a walk.
Helen is a member of the Association of Foragers and runs foraging experiences through her business Wild Seasons Foraging. Although we had communicated by email the past 18 months, this was our first face to face meeting. It was, however, not difficult to spot Helen. Like all foragers, she arrived with a wicker basket slung over her arm. Our walk route around Colemore was new to her. So, while I was looking forward to learning more about foraging, she was keen to assess the area’s wild food potential. Needless to say, we had barely advanced 5m before she had spotted at least 5 edibles.
Foraging is second nature to Helen. As a child, growing up around Grayshott, she was always out in nature. She loved exploring and acquiring plant knowledge from those more experienced. However, it was only during lockdown that she decided to pursue her passion professionally. The route into foraging is quite old school. There is no formal training course. Instead, you have to seek out learning from experienced foragers. Only once you have built up sufficient knowledge, been checked and are trusted to follow a lengthy code of principles that enshrine sustainability and nature protection, can you be put forward for membership of the Association.
The Foragers Code
The question is, do all foragers abide by this code? Helen is adamant they do and pointed to the lack of real evidence to the contrary. Foragers, she said, whether professional or amateur, need plants to return year after year. There is no sense in them destroying their store cupboard by taking too much. To reinforce this, the Association encourages people to take only what they need, from as wide an area as possible and to never pick rare species.
In line with this, when running courses, Helen is careful not to take people where she herself forages. She also feels that the majority of people joining her courses are doing so out of curiosity rather than any serious intent to live off nature. At the end of a session, they will perhaps feel confident to pick a couple more items from the hedgerow at most.
In Helen’s opinion, far from encouraging rural vandalism, a basic understanding of foraging is in fact helping restore our vital connection with nature. This is because foraging is the only outdoor activity that engages all 5 of our senses. Not only can we see, hear (popping wheat kernels) and smell plants but we can touch and taste them too. What is more, the most complex and intimate relationship that we can have with the natural environment is to eat it.
A Passion for Cooking
It should come as no surprise that another of Helen’s passions is cooking. So, when not out foraging she can usually be found experimenting with flavours and textures. Fortunately for me, she had been doing just that prior to our walk, and had brought along the fruits of her labour – some delicious Elderflower cupcakes. I was sure to fully appreciate them as the delicately perfumed icing is particularly fiddly to make. The elderflower stalks are toxic so it’s painstaking ensuring they are all removed. I’m guessing Helen did a thorough job as I’m still here to tell the tale.
As we progressed along our route, we came upon a most glorious wildflower meadow. With no option but to wade through, our foraging walk became fully immersive for a few hundred metres. While exceptionally beautiful, I did suddenly find myself regretting not having taken a hay fever tablet that morning. Helen’s suggestion for my predicament was to eat more flowers. Apparently, in the same way that eating locally produced honey can improve your pollen tolerance, the addition of local flowers to your diet can reduce your need for hay fever medication. As there was no time like the present, I reached for a nearby Oxeye Daisy, inflorescence, stalk, leaf, and all and gave it a good munch. The verdict – surprisingly pleasant.
Towards the end of our walk, as we headed back to the cars along the lane, it was clear to see that we’ll have a bumper harvest of hedgerow fruits and nuts this autumn. This being the product of a cold winter and magnificent spring blossom. These years of plenty (known as Mast years) are nature’s own ingenious way of redressing reproductive balance in the system every few years. It also helps keep predator populations in check…..including foragers….during lean years. The weather is a fundamental part of this system, providing the conditions for either feast or famine. This surely helps provide some perspective on the risk posed by foragers. It is not foragers, one small subset of humanity, that are the major risk to wildlife. It is mankind collectively through our contribution to climate change.
Although Helen had arrived with a good-sized basket, over the course of our walk she had lived by her code and only snipped a few nettles and elderflowers from different bushes along the course of our walk. Having helped deplete her stock of Elderflower cupcakes Helen was heading home to make another batch for her next course. If you haven’t already had the opportunity to learn from Helen, I can honestly say you will be in awe of her knowledge and feel inspired to learn more. After our walk I feel emboldened to step outside of my annual sloe gin comfort zone and get acquainted with more wild food. However, I might hold back from informing the family that I have been out gathering the groceries, rather than shopping, until they have survived the first few meals!