Foraging and the law

Reconnecting to the landscape is far from straightforward in the British Isles where every bit of land is under some form of ownership and an individual’s freedoms are beset by a long history of intricate laws.


An EXCELLENT piece is:

Code of Conduct for the conservation and enjoyment of wild plants – at the bottom there are lists of currently protected plants

by Ian Trueman, solicitor

The purpose of this article is to provide a very brief introduction to the law and in particular the Two principal Acts of Parliament of interest to those who visit and enjoy our countryside. These are the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (known as CROW) and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA).



After one hundred years or more of campaigning, CROW now enshrines in law a “right to roam” for people on foot only (with dogs too if desired) (to access open country in England and Wales. It does not apply in Scotland, where the tradition of wandering at will or “stravaiging” is well settled.

“Open country” is defined as mountain, moor, downland and heath and registered commons. It also includes land that has been voluntarily opened up by a landowner – the Forestry Commission is an example of one such a volunteer.

The Countryside Agency (CA) is in the process of mapping all such access land and in time it is hoped, that all such land will be shown on Ordnance Survey maps.

As with most legal issues, there are exceptions and exclusions – for example the right to roam does not cover golf courses, buildings, sensitive nature reserves and cultivated land. These are all outside the scope of CROW.

Once on access land, the public can enjoy it for “open air recreation”, which CROW (rather unhelpfully) does not define. Therefore the common sense definition of the phrase will apply – walking, climbing and picnicking are all activities within this definition.

With rights comes responsibilities and CROW demands of the public that it behaves. What does this mean? The CA has published an updated Countryside Code to guide us all. An example is that dogs are not allowed on access land between 1 March and 31 July (effectively when baby livestock is around and vulnerable), or at any other time in the vicinity of livestock. Only if it is on a short lead of not more than two metres.

National Park Authorities or County and District Councils have powers alongside Central Government, to enforce CROW. The authorities will particularly be on the look-out for landowners who erect misleading notices seeking to deter the public from exercising their CROW rights.

Needless to say, CROW has generated some controversy. The Ramblers Association takes the view that it does not go far enough, and are campaigning to include within its remit, all coastal areas. Landowners, unsurprisingly, are generally hostile, and CROW has generated hundreds of appeals seeking to prevent estates being opened up to access. The best known appellant, to date, is Madonna, whose appeal preventing her Wiltshire estate being put under the umbrella of CROW was largely successful.



The WCA is a complex piece of legislation, which touches upon common law rights in certain areas. I will take two examples – plant gathering and animal hunting/ gathering. In general a landowner owns all trees and plants growing upon his or her plot. An owner has the right to sever such objects from the land (and to sell the same), but WCA intervenes in the case of certain protected wild plants. In short if a plant species is protected under WCA, no one can pick, destroy or sell it (including the landowner) without committing an offence. If a species does not enjoy WCA protection what about the stranger who wants to take plants? An act of this nature would ordinarily be theft, but an exception in the Theft Act states that in the case of mushrooms or plants growing wild on land, a person may take away foliage, fruit or parts of the plant without committing an offence – unless it is done with the intention of selling them, or for other reward.

Although there is still some argument in law over what is a plant “growing wild”, put simply, those plants which arc obviously commercially grown cannot be taken (hence scrumping is theft.) whilst free-growing blackberry plants cannot have their fruits stolen unless for re-sale. It is worth noting though, that the above exception only protects the person who takes only part of a plant, if all the plant is taken away an act of theft arises, as against a landowner.

In the above scenario, though, the stranger still commits trespass, which is actionable in law. CROW has anticipated one potential problem by making it clear that any member of the public who enters access land must not pick any plant or part of one -irrespective of the Theft Act exception I have touched on. Whether that stipulation helps endear CROW to landowners remains to be seen.

The law of property in animals is complex, but as a general principle animals divide into ‘domestic’ and “wild’. Domestic animals are chattels and acts of theft and criminal damage can apply to this class of creature. As for wild animals, (I avoid ‘game’ for the purpose of this article) there is no absolute property in such creatures that are living, but there can exist various classes of qualified property rights. For example, a landowner who retains hunting rights on his own land has a qualified property in wild animals whilst they reside there – hence such owners often grant shooting rights to third parties.

Once a wild animal is killed (or found dead) there is an absolute property in the creature that rests in the landowner, or the user of any shooting or sporting rights – who can maintain a claim against any third party, such as a trespasser onto land. This is particularly so if a trespasser intends to sell on wild animals, such as rabbits. The situation is somewhat complicated where wild animals are found in the road – in practise no highway authority is likely to pursue anyone who picks up dead rabbit, for example – but note the Deer Act 1991 creates various offences relating to deer, and certainly collecting carcases for sale as venison is not permitted without licence.

Overlaying all these general principles though, are the statutes – not just CROW and WCA but others such as the Deer Act already referred to. These acts protect classes of animals by making it a criminal offence to kill, collect or maim with the use of snares or traps. Although in yesteryear the best birdwatchers learnt about their subject through egg collecting, post WCA, those days are over. All wild birds are now protected (subject to exceptions) and indeed, the mere possession, without authority of any species which is protected gives rise to an offence – even if that species is picked up already dead, from the road.

Finally, I am conscious of the fact that behind every statement in this article lies a mass of exception, legal uncertainty and no doubt potential for dispute. Perhaps to a communality of legal complexity do the separate states of town and country truly emerge.



What of wild root and tuber plants e.g. wild carrot, wild parsnip, dandelion, burdock, pignut, etc.?

If the underground portion is harvested then strictly speaking the part of the plant that grows above ground should be left on site and not taken away. By doing this the forager is demonstrating that his or her intention is not to permanently deprive the landowner of the goods. However, they may still leave themselves open to a charge of criminal damage, if permission from the landowner is not first sought. It is also unsightly.

On land which has been opened up under CROW rights the harvesting of any wild plant parts is forbidden.

There are national restrictions that apply to the new access rights at all times. CROW excludes any rights to the following; to ride a horse or bicycle, or drive a vehicle; take part in organised games or commercial activities; bathe in non-tidal water, or use boats there; hunt, fish or collect anything from the area including rocks or plants; camp or light fires.

In addition further local restrictions may be Imposed on the new rights where deemed necessary.

The above national restrictions and local restriction powers only apply to the land newly opened up to access under the CROW scheme. They do not affect what people already do: by local tradition or tolerance; with express permission; on public rights of way such as footpaths and bridleways; or under any other existing rights or arrangements that apply locally.

That’s the law but what of respect?

The following is a quote from an old holy Wintu Native American woman, that sets the benchmark—she was contrasting the behaviour of her people with that of the white man; “When we Indians kill meat, we eat it all up. When we dig roots we make little holes. When we build houses we make little holes. When we burn grass for a grasshoppers, we don’t ruin things. We shake down acorns and pinenuts. We don’t chop down trees. We only use dead wood.”

This article was reproduced by kind permission of The Bushcraft Magazine – thanks Steve and Huw! (Spring 2006)

Wild Food and Foraging
Some ideas for harvesting wild foods
Version 1.2, October 2008. Produced by the Free Range Energy Beyond Oil Project


Taxonomic Guide – Important Safety Warning

Some species of fungi are DEADLY POISONOUS, and edible fungi can easily be confused with poisonous ones if specimens are not thoroughly examined. Extreme care is therefore essential when gathering wild fungi to be used as food. If you are at all uncertain, show the fungi to an expert and obtain positive identification before eating them or giving them to anyone else who might eat them.


Guidelines for identifying fungi

1. Fungi of a particular species can vary tremendously in size, shape and colours. Before eating any edible fungi, make positive identification of several specimens.
2. Young specimens rarely display the full range of identification features. Do not collect immature mushrooms that you cannot positively identify.
3. Old mushrooms decay rapidly and can become infested with worms and grubs; they are best left alone.
4. The Taxonomic Guides in the section of this web site list visual and other identification features for each species in the guide. The pictures alone are not sufficient, and it is essential to match up all of the features accurately.
5. If a specimen that you find disagrees in even one respect with the details given here, it is best to assume that the fungus you have found is NOT the one illustrated and described in the Taxonomic Guide. If in doubt, leave them out.


Leave Gates and Property as You Find Them

Please respect the working life of the countryside, as our actions can affect people’s livelihoods, our heritage, and the safety and welfare of animals and ourselves.

A farmer will normally leave a gate closed to keep livestock in, but may sometimes leave it open so they can reach food and water. Leave gates as you find them or follow instructions on signs; if walking in a group, make sure the last person knows how to leave the gates.

In fields where crops are growing, follow the paths wherever possible.

Use gates and stiles wherever possible – climbing over walls, hedges and fences can damage them and increase the risk of farm animals escaping.

Our heritage belongs to all of us – be careful not to disturb ruins and historic sites.

Leave machinery and livestock alone – don’t interfere with animals even if you think they’re in distress. Try to alert the farmer instead.

Protect Plants and Animals and Take Your Litter Home

We have a responsibility to protect our countryside now and for future generations, so make sure you don’t harm animals, birds, plants or trees.

Litter and leftover food doesn’t just spoil the beauty of the countryside, it can be dangerous to wildlife and farm animals and can spread disease – so take your litter home with you. Dropping litter and dumping rubbish are criminal offences.

Discover the beauty of the natural environment and take special care not to damage, destroy or remove features such as rocks, plants and trees. They provide homes and food for wildlife, and add to everybody’s enjoyment of the countryside.

Wild animals and farm animals can behave unpredictably if you get too close, especially if they’re with their young – so give them plenty of space.

Fires can be as devastating to wildlife and habitats as they are to people and property – so be careful not to drop a match or smouldering cigarette at any time of the year. Sometimes, controlled fires are used to manage vegetation, particularly on heaths and moors between October and early April, so please check that a fire is not supervised before calling 999.


Consider Other People

Showing consideration and respect for other people makes the countryside a pleasant environment for everyone – at home, at work and at leisure.

Whether you’re walking on your own or with a large group, you’ll have an impact on the local environment. Follow these brief rules to make it more pleasant for visitors and locals alike.

Busy traffic on small country roads can be unpleasant and dangerous to local people, visitors and wildlife – so slow down and, where possible, leave your vehicle at home, consider sharing lifts and use alternatives such as public transport or cycling. For public transport information, phone Traveline on 0870 608 2608.

Respect the needs of local people – for example, don’t block gateways, driveways or other entry points with your vehicle.

By law, cyclists must give way to walkers and horse riders on bridleways.

Keep out of the way when farm animals are being gathered or moved and follow directions from the farmer.

Support the rural economy – for example, buy your supplies from local shops.

Keep dogs under close control

The countryside is a great place to exercise dogs, but it’s every owner’s duty to make sure their dog is not a danger or nuisance to farm animals, wildlife or other people.

By law, you must control your dog so that it does not disturb or scare farm animals or wildlife. You must keep your dog on a short lead on most areas of open country and common land between 1 March and 31 July, and at all times near farm animals.

You do not have to put your dog on a lead on public paths as long as it is under close control. But as a general rule, keep your dog on a lead if you cannot rely on its obedience. By law, farmers are entitled to destroy a dog that injures or worries their animals.

If a farm animal chases you and your dog, it is safer to let your dog off the lead – don’t risk getting hurt by trying to protect it.

Take particular care that your dog doesn’t scare sheep and lambs or wander where it might disturb birds that nest on the ground and other wildlife – eggs and young will soon die without protection from their parents.

Everyone knows how unpleasant dog mess is and it can cause infections – so always clean up after your dog and get rid of the mess responsibly. Also make sure your dog is wormed regularly.

You can also find out more by phoning the Open Access Helpline on 0845 100 3298.

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Fergus Drennan is a wild food experimentalist and educator, runs regular full day total immersion foraging courses for the general public and privately, he has written regularly on wild food and foraging for many international magazines and publications.

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