A ban on foraging?

Bristol Council proposes ban on blackberry picking

That is one of several mildly alarmist headlines and post titles that I have seen today regarding the proposed plans by Bristol City Council to introduce new byelaws in the parks and some of the open spaces of the city.
The new byelaws will make it illegal to remove “the whole or any part of any plant, shrub or tree”. this has caused a bit of a stir, as you may imagine…

In the UK at the moment it is legal to forage for edible fruits, flora, fungi and foliage if you have right of access through there (i.e. they are on or adjacent to a public right of way) OR landowner permission AND that fruit/flower/fungi/leaf isn’t part of a plant being grown for cultivation AND you are not foraging for commercial reasons (i.e. selling them on, making things that you will then sell).
There are exceptions to this – Sites of Special Scientific Interest often preclude the removal of plants, and there are certain protected species that cannot be collected no matter how edible they are. These are some fairly sensible and even laws governing our free sources of food, and will hopefully maintain some sort of ecological balance. Maybe.

foraging ban bristolThe row about the proposed restrictions on removal of plants in Bristol City parks and open spaces is mainly focusing on the largely innocent activities of foragers – picking blackberries and other edibles. Whilst foraging is not specifically addressed in the proposed byelaws, there have been issues in other parts of the country with bands of commercial foragers virtually stripping areas of fungi and other organisms that have a high commercial value. Is this part of the thinking behind the proposal? Possibly, although Fungi are not plants.

Before I give my opinion on this, it is worth pointing out that Bristol City Council are very much at the consultation stage with this:

“The byelaw in question is only intended to protect plants (and other things) from damage, not to stop berry picking.
“We have no intention of preventing responsible people from making good use of our natural resources, as long as they are not causing any damage to the plant or its surroundings or wildlife that feed on it.
“Our consultation asks people to identify the impact they see it having, which will help us avoid unintended consequences.
“We want to make sure that the byelaws allow as much as they can whilst giving us appropriate control of nuisance and other antisocial behaviour.
“The aim is for people to enjoy activities in as many places as possible and we’ve designed the byelaws around this.
“However, we’d encourage anyone with feedback to take part in the current consultation so that their concerns can be properly considered.
“We welcome input from everyone, and will take comments into account.”

Given the amount of negative media attention that this has attracted I would not be surprised if this quietly drops off the list and something else takes its place.

So what’s the issue? Well, several commercial foragers/foraging guides have claimed that it will harm their businesses:

“It seems rather a heavy handed approach to something that I am not aware of being a problem. It basically means I can’t do my job.
“The work I do is a way of engaging people with what they can eat and drink and get them outside.

Another said:

“It’s narrow minded. We need an active participation in wildlife’s support, not exclusion from it.
“Look, I picked up a dandelion! I’m a criminal now! I’m sorry, but this is outrageous.”

That’s fair enough to say – if your business is based around foraging in those places AND there is going to be a ban on removing plants from those places then you are going to find it tough! But… unless you had the landowners permission then you couldn’t commercially forage there anyway! The definition of “commercial purposes” is a little vague in this case – is taking paying clients around the area to show them edible wild plants the same as picking them and selling them to customers? I sympathise with anybody who would lose their income from these changes, but if you were foraging from private or publicly owned land for resale without the permission of the landowner then you were already on the other side of the law – why is this different?
I say this as somebody who runs foraging courses and has worked as a commercial forager for the restaurant market. Our courses are run on a mixture of private land we have permission to use, or along public rights of way where we (respectfully) show clients what, how and where to find edible plants and Fungi. The items supplied for commercial sale where done in partnership with landowners, carefully managing what we offered to meet both the laws of the land and high ethical and environmental standards. The items we supplied ended up halfway around the world and on TV cooking shows, and all were gathered within the laws as they currently stand.

So what’s my opinion? Well… the proposed byelaw is a bit daft but there is an incorrect assumption that because you are calling it ‘foraging’ you are allowed to take as much as you want from wherever you want whenever you want. It is a point rarely raised when foraging and wild food appears in the media, and often surprises our course participants when it comes up on our foraging courses.

Whilst I believe that a greater connection to our landscape and natural environment would be the solution to so many problems in our world, there is a responsibility to understand why ecological and environmental laws exist. Each and everyone of us needs to be able to access nature, and draconian restrictions help nobody – and there should be no need for them. Whilst wider outdoor access rights are being campaigned for in the rest of the UK byelaws like these will only ever meet with fierce opposition – but we can’t ignore the existing laws just because foraging is a fashionable activity again.

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