Culture and Controversy
In many ways, to forage is to be human. Virtually every culture throughout history has derived its identity largely from the land they lived on and the food that it provided them, and this pattern can still be seen in traditional societies today. Foraging gets us out into nature, connects us with the myriad wild species around us, and provides us with some of the world’s more nutritious food. Collecting mushrooms soothes our minds and allows us to slip back into the relaxed pace at which nature operates, making us feel closer to the world we come from.
Whilst countries in Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, North America, and East Asia celebrate their thriving mushroom foraging cultures with little to no controversy, here in the UK the scene is very different indeed. If you live outside the UK, you may be surprised to find that not only is foraging not as popular as it is in other countries, but it’s also shunned by the culture at large. The media don’t do it any justice either. Every autumn you can bet your bolete that tabloid newspapers will be chugging out their run-of-the-mill sensationalist news articles with titles such as,
…all of which taint the peaceful reality of foraging culture with a malicious edge. Whilst incidents of bad practice in commercial foraging do sometimes occur, these news stories don’t accurately represent the blossoming foraging scene that actually exists in the undercurrents of society.
In fact, this undercurrent seems to be building to a swell as more and more people are drawn to the pleasures of picking their own food. We can see this with the increasing popularity of guided foraging walks and the uptick of new mushroom identification Facebook groups in the last few years. This interest has attracted an assortment of people with wildly different levels of experience, and along with them, some sharp opposition from mycologists and conservationists.
It doesn’t take much scrolling through these Facebook groups to see that many new people haven’t learned best practice, and some have a habit of picking whatever they find into one big container and asking, “what is it and can I eat it?” Others like to show off their hefty harvests for the world to admire. Seeing all this and being intimately aware of rare species and the sensitivity of natural habitats in Britain, some mycologists don’t think that our nature is capable of withstanding these harvesting pressures. They would rather see an end to foraging entirely.
To me, this is not evidence that foraging is a problem, it is evidence that we need more education around our interaction with nature. We need more people to know about ecological issues and conservation to help bring balance to this resurgent food culture.
Does Foraging Damage Wildlife?
My family comes from Poland, a country known for its rich and unapologetic mushroom foraging culture where children are taught from a young age what is edible and what is to be avoided. It is a widespread activity, where every autumn droves of people head out into the woods with their friends and family to stock up their pantries with nature’s bounty for the winter. This tradition runs deep into the past and across many countries.
A quick glance at these mycophilic countries of Europe might make you suspicious towards the claim that foraging is having a negative impact on wild habitats. Just imagine the sheer mountains of mushrooms harvested by people every year for personal use and commerce. Surely, their mushroom populations would have been decimated long ago?
As renowned forager John Wright puts it in his book Hedgerow, “It is of course perfectly possible to forage in a manner that is damaging to the natural world, but it is not actually all that easy.” In a large healthy ecosystem, the effects of foraging are quite minuscule since people don’t actually find every patch of mushrooms that grows, leaving many undiscovered.
There is one scientific paper that very frequently gets quoted when discussing the impacts of foraging. “Mushroom picking does not impair future harvests - Results of a long-term study in Switzerland” by Simon Egli et al. (2006) has a self-explanatory title. It studied the impacts of mushroom foraging over a 25-year period only to find that “systematic harvesting reduces neither the future yields of fruit bodies nor the species richness of wild forest fungi…” However, what did impact mushroom yields was trampling. When mushrooms just begin to form (or ‘pin’) on the surface of the soil just under the leaf litter, they are especially prone to having their whole enterprise squished under someone’s boot. In Europe, the large extent of forest cover seems to provide a buffer for soil compaction effects, as foragers essentially have larger areas to roam.
Let’s bring this discussion back home and take a closer look at the state of wildlife here in the UK. As was mentioned in the previous section, the taboo against mushroom foraging is widespread, but it does stem from reasonable roots that should not be left out of this discussion. The answer boils down to the extent to which nature on the British Isles has been subdued and domesticated. Over 70% of the UK is farmland, leaving virtually no ecosystem in a truly wild state. Centuries of conquest and land-grabbing, topped off by harsh enclosure laws during the industrial revolution and large-scale deforestation for resources for the World Wars, has left this small island bereft of thriving wild landscapes.
Our current form of agriculture is incredibly intensive, relying on vast inputs of nitrate fertilisers that are known to be the main cause of fungal decline (Lilleskov et al., 2019; Dahlberg, 2010), and agricultural policies that have incentivised farmers to grub up as much uncultivated habitat as they can for the sake of maximising subsidies. Additionally, fungi do not factor into environmental impact assessments the way they do in Chile, and so potentially valuable species go unchecked as land is cleared for privatised development projects that have no vested interests in the ecology of the land.
Scaling this up to the country as a whole, it is easy to see what is to blame for the state of Britain’s fungi, and why our habitats now have to be described as “sensitive” and “fragile” so often.
The bottom line here is that our landscapes aren’t being damaged by foragers, they’re being damaged by industry, and it is unfair to end such a fulfilling and healthy activity as foraging because of the actions of corporations. Of course, a lot of ecological damage has already been done, which naturally limits us from foraging as much as people do in other parts of Europe. If done diligently, land reclamation and ecological restoration by conservation organisations could be scaled up to match the pace at which foraging is increasing in popularity.
When Foraging Becomes Conservation
Foraging in Eastern Europe is woven into the very tapestry of culture and economy, and as a result, people actually value having wild forests around them. In other words, there is a cultural incentive to keep the forests alive. In Poland, mushroom picking serves as an important source of additional seasonal income for economically deprived groups in rural areas, like the unemployed and elderly (Łuczaj & Nieroda, 2011), and these people hold a lot of ethnomycological knowledge valuable to science and conservation. Is it any surprise then that Poland, along with other pro-foraging European countries, have some of the last vestiges of wild primeval forests on the continent?
It seems to me that foragers and conservationists should stop being pitted against one another in the forest and the forum, and instead work towards adapting our current conservation models, teaching foragers to be citizen scientists and stewards.
Traditional models of conservation, which originated in 19th century America, were simple and effective: keep people and industry out. No interference, no disruption. Let wild nature run its course. In many cases, this model served its purpose well, which is why much of conservation today also follows that system. However, as has been pointed out in the brilliant TEDx talk by botanist and conservationist Arthur Haines, this hands-off approach is not a sustainable or entirely effective way of protecting wild nature.
The reason is simple and falls into the realm of human psychology: people will only protect what they use or have a personal relationship with. To demonstrate one example, think of how defensive a farmer might become when their land or way of life is threatened, by development or badgers or what have you. The loss of a coherent foraging or wildcrafting culture in many parts of the industrialised world has torn people from nature physically and psychologically to the extent that we no longer feel like we are ‘of the land’ or personally identified with a place like people were in the past. That’s why many people nowadays don’t get defensive when ecological disasters like HS2 get the green light from the government.
The great irony of our time is that public interest in nature is at its highest in recent history, yet the erosion of wild ecosystems continues faster than ever before. It is the loss of connection to the land and the forfeiting of accountability that has allowed rampant destruction to take place. Public support of foraging can at least begin the process of reconnection and restoration, which has a chance of rekindling our lost culture of wildcrafting, widening the base of support for conservation organisations. More interest in fungi potentially means more interest in mycology as a career choice for future generations, which is greatly needed given that fungal conservation is severely lagging behind plant and animal conservation.
Fortunately, the idea of sustainable foraging is not new, so we don’t have to start on step one. The Association of Foragers was established in 2015 to promote sustainability and ecological stewardship, and have outlined five key principles of responsible foraging on their website. In addition, Target 11 of the Saving the Forgotten Kingdom: A Strategy for the Conservation of the UK’s Fungi by the Fungus Conservation Forum is to “encourage sustainable harvesting” and to improve awareness and promotion of existing codes of practice. Sharing these principles amongst our foraging communities is essential.
Finally, foraging can no longer be taught without including the conservation element. Teachers and guides have a major responsibility in ensuring that the public learn about conservation issues, vulnerable species, and sensitive habitats before they attempt to learn how to forage. As a result, conservation charities will likely see greater support from more people who want to engage with nature more closely.
Seeing the Forest for the Trees
I hope to see a future Britain in which foraging is celebrated in our culture, where wildlife is allowed to thrive in healthy abundance, giving people a strong sense of cultural identity and connection to place. For now, if you enjoy foraging, the single most important thing you can do is to understand the habitat and its history before you embark. We need to know our landscapes intimately to ensure they’re big and intact enough to handle harvesting, or if they are homes to ecologically important species we should be mindful of. That, at least, is my vision for the near term whilst conservationists and foragers alike begin crafting detailed region-specific guidelines for sustainable foraging.
Perhaps a bit more far-out is the possibility that future livelihoods and economies that derive a larger portion of their value from wildcrafting activities will incentivise landowners to release their land from intensive agriculture, turning them into wildlife reserves. Former agricultural lands are known to bounce back surprisingly quickly, as was demonstrated by Isabella Tree in Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm, and even the recent restoration of the Dover clifftops from arable land into wildflower-rich meadows by the National Trust.
So, is foraging harmful for nature? Not if it is for personal use by people who understand and respect their local ecology. However, what actually is harmful for nature is our increasing disconnection with it, allowing industry to continue degrading our land whilst profiting from the public’s ignorance. Perhaps it's time to settle the disputes between foragers and conservationists, and unite to address the real causes of wildlife loss. The only way forward, in my opinion, is to stop alienating people from wild nature, and to construct conservation models that incorporate human activity as another natural process. Only when the internal arguments end will we have the headspace to properly direct our efforts to protecting our incredible natural heritage.