Is it illegal to pick wild flowers in the U.K? Can I pick them to eat?

A brief explanation of the laws about picking wild plants, flowers and other items in the UK

Well, this one won’t be easy.

Maybe it is actually – the relevant laws/legislation that refers to the picking and use of plants growing in the British countryside is actually quite clear. The tricky bit is knowing which ‘side of the law’ you are actually on when you bend over to pick a particular flower, leaf, fruit or fungi.

In this blog post I will do my best to explain it, pick out the relevant parts of the legislation and steer a forager, bushcrafter or ethnobotanist in what is (hopefully) the right direction.
At the bottom of this blog post is the shortened explanation (a tl;dr), but for those who want to know exactly where that came from here are some blocks of legal text:

The Theft Act (1968)

Within Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) you will find the following:

(3)A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.
For purposes of this subsection “mushroom” includes any fungus, and “plant” includes any shrub or tree.

This section is often quoted when discussing foraging and taking wild plants from the British countryside, and is fairly well known and easy to understand. What is less clear is the situation with regard to land owned and maintained by the local Council. Several blogs, newspaper articles and other sources have articles and posts online that mention something along the lines of:

According to the Theft Act of 1968 it is illegal to…

Pick cultivated flowers in public parks or gardens as well as plants and flowers growing on land which is maintained by the council (for example roundabouts and grass verges).

That particular quote was taken from the blog of online gardening retailer Primrose, but with no direct link to a relevant section in the Theft Act, or any other reference. Other websites will have a similar message as a byline in articles related to the legality of picking wild flowers in the UK, often following on from some related newsworthy incident.

The thing is – as far as I can see, and you should always conduct your own research of course – there is nothing in the Theft Act which specifically protects ‘Council maintained land’ when it comes to picking wildflowers or other plants. The illegal activity would most likely be the picking of flowers etc that have been planted deliberately or cultivated – for example from a floral display or flowerbed. If you were to pick one of these plants then you would be committing an offence (theft, funnily enough) – but it would be the same situation if you were to lean over into someone’s garden and pick something from their flowerbed.

Foraging Instructor talking about plants UK
Talking about UK wild plant law on a foraging course
man taking photo of mushroom
Take only pictures etc etc...

The Wildlife and Countryside act (1981)

There is much more to read in this act, and the parts that any forager, bushcrafter or ethnobotanist should pay attention to are:

Part 1, Section 13 (England and Wales, for Scotland see below)) states:

13 Protection of wild plants.
(1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—
(a)intentionally picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant included in Schedule 8; or
(b)not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule,he shall be guilty of an offence.
(2)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—
(a)sells, offers or exposes for sale, or has in his possession or transports for the purpose of sale, any live or dead wild plant included in Schedule 8, or any part of, or anything derived from, such a plant; or
(b)publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that he buys or sells, or intends to buy or sell, any of those things,he shall be guilty of an offence.
(3)Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1), a person shall not be guilty of an offence by reason of any act made unlawful by that subsection if he shows that the act was an incidental result of a lawful operation and could not reasonably have been avoided.
(4)In any proceedings for an offence under subsection (2)(a), the plant in question shall be presumed to have been a wild plant unless the contrary is shown.

The Scottish version was amended by the creation of the Nature Conservation Act (Scotland, 2004). It added in the word ‘recklessly’ plus a few other minor changes:

(1)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—
(a)intentionally or recklessly picks, uproots or destroys any wild plant included in Schedule 8; or any seed or spore attached to any such wild plant; or
(b)not being an authorised person, intentionally or recklessly uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule, he shall be guilty of an offence.
(2)Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person—
(a)sells, offers or exposes for sale, or has in his possession or transports for the purpose of sale, any live or dead wild plant included in Schedule 8, or any part of, or anything derived from, such a plant; or
(b)publishes or causes to be published any advertisement likely to be understood as conveying that he buys or sells, or intends to buy or sell, any of those things,he shall be guilty of an offence.
(3)Notwithstanding anything in subsection (1), a person shall not be guilty of an offence by reason of any act made unlawful by that subsection (“an unlawful act”) if he shows—
(a)that the unlawful act was the incidental result of a lawful operation or other activity;
(b)that the person who carried out the lawful operation or other activity—
(i)took reasonable precautions for the purpose of avoiding carrying out the unlawful act; or
(ii)did not foresee, and could not reasonably have foreseen, that the unlawful act would be an incidental result of the carrying out of the lawful operation or other activity; and
(c)that the person who carried out the unlawful act took, immediately upon the consequence of that act becoming apparent, such steps as were reasonably practicable in the circumstances to minimise the damage to the wild plant in relation to which the unlawful act was carried out.
(3A)Subject to the provisions of this Part, any person who knowingly causes or permits to be done an act which is made unlawful by any of the foregoing provisions of this section shall be guilty of an offence.
(4)In any proceedings for an offence under subsection (2)(a) or for an offence under subsection (3A) relating to an act which is mentioned in subsection (2)(a) , the plant in question shall be presumed to have been a wild plant unless the contrary is shown.

Schedule 8 lists the protected species than cannot be picked or disturbed without special permission – even if you are the landowner. Happily for foragers there is nothing in there that will be of interest, but it is worth familiarising yourself with some of the more common species.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) did not create SSSIs – Sites of Special Scientific Interest, but it is the current legislation that oversees them. These are designated areas where extra protections exist to protect certain species or habitats, and there are almost always a list of ‘PDOs’ (Potentially Damaging Operations) that are attached to each site. These lists almost always include the ‘removal of plants’ as being a PDO – i.e. you cannot remove plants from the SSSI without other permission, no matter what the species.

This is why you will often see something along the lines of ‘you cannot pick plants from a SSSI or a nature reserve‘ in reference to foraging.

foraging course in North wales

The Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations (1997)

Applying specifically to the ‘Royal Parks’ and similar designated ‘Royal’ spaces, this Act built upon existing laws governing users of these urban outdoor spaces dating back over a century.

Regulation 4 (Acts for which written permission is required) refers directly to plants and fungi:

Acts in a Park for which written permission is required
4. Unless the Secretary of State’s written permission has first been obtained, no person using a Park shall—

(1) interfere with any plant or fungus;

There is a LONG list here of what you cannot do, with some notable highlights:

(12) camp or erect or cause to be erected any tent or enclosure;
(13) wash or dry any piece of clothing or linen;
(24) feed or touch any deer or pelican

So if you are camping in Hyde Park, whilst washing your clothes after they were soiled by your touching of a pelican then you should certainly then refrain from interfering with a plant.

Epping Forest Byelaws

There are a number of byelaws for the large public forest (and surrounding area) north of London. They date back to the Epping Forest Act (1878) but the most relevant part for foragers etc is:


Prohibited acts

3. The doing of or attempting to do any of the following acts in the Forest is prohibited and shall be deemed to be an offence against the Epping Forest Act 1878:
Taking anything from the Forest
(4) Taking or moving any substance in or from the Forest, save with the previous written consent of the Conservators, PROVIDED that this byelaw shall not apply to the collection in any one day of no more than 12 kg of loose, dead or driftwood, of which no piece shall exceed 5 cm in diameter and 91 cm in length.

Damaging trees or other growing things
(5) Damaging or injuring or climbing up or upon any tree or other growing thing in or from the Forest, save with the previous written consent of the Conservators.

Epping Forest has become notorious in UK foraging law discussion due to the annual news pieces about the actions of ‘commercial’ foragers hunting for mushrooms to sell to, or in, the restaurants of the capital. It is often, incorrectly, stated that it had ‘become illegal’ to forage in Epping Forest – in fact it has been illegal to forage there under the byelaws, and commercial foraging was already outlawed under the Theft Act 1968.

Finding edible roots (with permission of landowner)

Trespass and Land Access

Although often brought together with the above legislature (Theft Act, Wildlife and Countryside Act etc) the issue of trespass and access to the land has very little to do with the picking of leaves, fruit, flowers or fungi.

The only place where picking plants/removal of plants is specifically mentioned is the Countryside Rights of Way Act (2000). Under land designated as part of the CROW Act you can walk on open ground as if it were a public footpath etc, but you must behave within certain restrictions. There are several things that you ‘cannot’ do as a person exercising their rights under the Countryside Rights of Way Act, including:

SCHEDULE 2
Restrictions to be observed by persons exercising right of access
General restrictions
1(1)Section 2(1) Subject to sub-paragraph (2), section 2(1) does not entitle a person to be on any land if, in or on that land, he—

(l)intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root,

This means that you can access the designated areas of land under the CROW Act, but as soon as you perform one of the prohibited activities in that list (including foraging) then your ‘right’ to be there evaporates and you are now trespassing.

A simpler guide to what you can and cannot do under the CROW Act can be found here.

Other than the CROW Act there is nothing else (as far as I can see) in UK law currently that refers to public access AND ‘foraging’ in the same document. This means that the question of foraging or picking wild plants ‘legally’ has two sides – what you are picking, and your right’legality to be standing in that spot to pick it.

Trespass is a very interesting topic in it’s own right (no really, I promise you) but it is worth creating a separate article – we already have explored part of it in this post about UK Wild Camping Law.

The Short and Simple Version

TL;DR

OK, if you have just scrolled down to the bottom of the article for a quick answer then here it is…

  • Under the Theft Act (1968) you cannot ‘steal’ a plant that it is genuinely growing wild as long as you are not picking it/parts of it for commercial purposes
  • This means that you can pick plants that are growing wild, but not from gardens, flower beds or other places where the plants are being cultivated or have been planted
  • Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) you cannot uproot a plant without the permission of the landowner, you cannot pick a protected species and cannot forage from a SSSI or NNR (National Nature Reserve)
  • There are places where byelaws and other laws exist that mean you cannot remove plants from those areas, no matter if it is planted or growing wild (Royal Parks, Epping Forest etc)
  • Access and trespass is a separate issue
    • So if you are picking a plant or part of it but nor uprooting it, it isn’t a protected species, you aren’t within a SSSI, NNR or other ecologically protected site, you aren’t in a Royal Park or Epping Forest or similar site with special byelaws AND it is genuinely growing wild then yes, you can legally pick that wild flower.

The ethical side of all of this is a bit fuzzier – the charity Plantlife have a campaign encouraging people to go and pick wild flowers in order to improve the general knowledge and appreciation of them. They also have a very good Code of Conduct that is worth looking at and following. Personally I broadly agree with campaigns like this – if we are to appreciate the natural environment around us then we need to interact with it and learn to value it.
We have no interest in protecting the things we don’t value, and we don’t value that which is unknown to us.

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2 Comments
  1. Very interesting piece on an important legal issue, where there is nowhere near enough clarity in my view. We sometimes visit a series of nature trails, established on an old railway line and former coal workings, and I wonder what the law for a place like that might be? They are county council run, I think.

    • Like almost every ‘legal’ question for the outdoors the answer is a big, fat “it depends…”. If the plant is not a protected species under the WCA, the area is not a SSSI or another ecologically-protected area, the plants are genuinely growing wild (i.e. not planted/managed) and you aren’t foraging commercially then legally speaking you are probably in the clear.

      The ethical and moral implications are much more complex, and will be down to you to work out.

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