The consequences of the various byelaws, however, are much less straightforward. National Nature Reserves, Wildlife Trusts, The National Trust land and all Sites of Special Scientific Interest are protected and the plants contained in them cannot be touched without the permission of the relevant conservation agencies(5). In addition, local authorities have the power to pass byelaws for the total protection of all plants contained in designated nature reserves(6). Yet at best, only around 30% of the actively foraging population even realise that there are byelaws that apply to the gathering of plants. 

Management of these sites, mostly by Natural England, is done generally by voluntary agreement with the landowner. It has now become common practice in the general byelaws of most of these sites to include a section stating that it is not permissible to take the fruit, roots or foliage of any plants in the designated reserves. Someone rambling through a wood may encounter signs denominating an organization, such as the National Trust, who looks after the flora and fauna(7). These signs usually state somewhere that the area is regulated by byelaws and these are often included on the back of the sign or a separate notice board. In general, where the rambler hopes to pick a flower or seedpod from a plant in the woodland, the byelaws will probably determine whether, in the absence of any private rights, it is acceptable to do so.

            For instance, the National Trust byelaws state under Section 2(b):

No unauthorized person shall dig up or remove, cut, fell, pluck or injure any flowers, plants, fungi, moss, ferns, shrubs, trees or other vegetation growing on Trust property or remove any seeds thereof or injure any grass or climb any tree.

This prescriptive section has obvious implications for plant taking on National Trust land. As increasing amounts of land comes under the care of quasi-governmental organisations and their associated byelaws, this may limit the land that is available for casual foraging.   

Picture of bilberry plant

Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) - a commonly foraged plant.

Harvesting bilberries

Whether it will actually limit non-commercial activities on a day-to-day basis is a somewhat different matter. The intention of the prescriptive sections in conservation legislation was not specifically to prohibit foraging, but to provide a tool whereby land managers could protect species and habitats in their stewardship role. Foraging, when done following the relevant codes of conduct, does not currently conflict with this objective. However, should more people wish to venture into the countryside and gather wild foods, this may change. Moreover, the growing commercial exploitation of valuable plants is causing increasing conflicts between landowners, conservationists and foragers. Notably, the writer, broadcaster and forager, Fergus Drennan – known as the “Roadkill Chef” - has abandoned commercial foraging due to concerns about its sustainability.  

Regardless, decision making can and should be left to the collaborative arrangements between the foragers and the owners or stewards of the land. Though they are not enforceable in law, the numerous codes of conduct may help to avoid some of the more foreseeable conflicts whilst simultaneously engaging the public in the effective management of our limited natural resources. Foraging, whilst no longer needed for our nutritional well being, still appears to fulfill an atavistic need. Those out gathering plants state they gain a wide range of physical and psychological benefits from the activity that often extend to a spiritual feeling of connection to the land. They also satisfy social and philosophical desires for self-sufficiency and a sense of continuity with those ancient foragers who once foraged across a very different landscape.

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Jennifer would welcome any comments or queries about her work, so please drop her a line.
1. Wild foods including pignuts, herbs, nettles, seaweeds, fungi, hawthorn buds, dandelion, rocket, wood sorrel and a wide variety of fruits and nuts have all been recorded in Anglo-Saxon cooking.
2. or
3. These requirements come from the Council of Europe’s Bern Convention (Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats). In 1992, the EU passed an important instrument for the protection of plants: the Habitat and Species Directive, which was translated into U.K. law and led to a list of protected plants as well as the requirement to establish areas for the protection of important habitats. In the U.K., this is now covered under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as amended by CROW 2000. Sections 13(a) and (b) of WCA (1981) extend special protection to plants that are either in danger of extinction or likely to become so (as listed in Schedule 8), in that they may not be uprooted or picked (s. 22(3)(a); 13(1)(a), 27(1).  
5. Through the Habitat and Species Directive, byelaws for the protection of particular species and habitats can now be enacted. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is a conservation area created to help protect the “processes which help maintain an area.” The law protects the land from development, damage and neglect and owners of SSSI land must consult Natural England if they want to carry out any activities that may affect the site. Further, CROW gave Natural England the power to ensure better management and protection of habitats.
6. National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, ss. 20(2)(b), 21(4); Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, s. 35(4).
7. This is distinguishable from someone who may be managing the land, such as a local wildlife trust.