As I was driving home from work this week, I was admiring the stunning red, yellow and orange leaves still clinging onto branches. The mild Autumn we have experienced this year, seems to have prolonged the colour of the leaves into November, making the Peak District glow in the evening light. Along with the gorgeous autumnal colours still visible on the landscape, bounties of edible fruits such as sloe berries and blackberries as well as species of mushrooms are also becoming more evident.
Foraging for wild, edible food has seen a revival in recent years. What used to be a niche countryside pursuit for foodies is now becoming a hobby for many, including city dwellers. It seems that increasingly people are more interested in where their food comes from, and for those who do not have the space to grow it, especially in urban areas, foraging has become the best way to reconnect with British food.
However, in recent months, foragers have received criticism with claims that their hobby is actually destroying the environment and wiping out various species of fungi. A Guardian article published in September claimed that in recent years our forests have been ‘assailed by gangs of pickers’ who enter these wild areas and ‘strip the land of hundreds of kilograms of oyster, chanterelle, field, cep and other mushrooms’ as to ‘satisfy the nation’s growing urge to forage for food.’
Mark Williams, a member of The Association of Foragers, has taught about fungi in Scotland for 25 years. Williams hit back on the criticism in a recent press release, saying: “A 25-year study of the effects of picking mushrooms revealed no correlation whatsoever between picking and future growth, in the same way as picking a bramble does not impact the parent plant - in the case of mushrooms an invisible underground network called mycelium. The picking and movement of mushrooms is actually more likely to help spread fungi spores and expand populations.”
Surely the answer is to educate foragers about responsible harvesting, and not to ban the hobby altogether? In the US, Seattle is a prime example of this. The city has dedicated seven acres to its first food forest on public land. The food grown there is available to pick and be consumed by any person visiting the park. Fears of residents destroying the forest or taking more than their fair share are minimal. By creating a space where foraging is encouraged, the locals learn to both respect nature and enjoy its bounty.
Foragers be aware! There is one particular menace this Autumn, which will try and catch you out. The death cap mushroom is Britain’s deadliest mushroom and has been reported in unusually large numbers thanks to the mild, damp weather. Not only should foragers be educated about responsible harvesting, but also what is safe to pick and consume. Before you venture outdoors with a bag in hand, make sure you are familiar with what food should and shouldn’t be touched.
All in all, I think foraging is needed now more than ever. In our developed and increasingly urban country, foraging is one of the few ways we can reconnect with the land and sea. It reminds us that food isn’t created in factories, spotless, untarnished and uniform in shape, but comes from wet, windy, muddy places full of thorns and creepy-crawlies. It is our duty to educate children and young people about the origins of food, so they will feel inclined to protect the environment as they grow older, because if we don’t take care of these natural spaces, we could one day find ourselves without anything to fill our tummies.
If you would like to learn more about responsible foraging in Derbyshire, take a look at our Foraging Course with Eden Wild Food on Saturday 5th November. There are limited spaces left, so do get in touch if you are interested!