Why is foraging still so popular in the U.K?

For a decade our foraging and wild foods courses are filled – but why?

My name is Richard Prideaux, and I am a forager.

It’s not much of a confession really – through Original Outdoors I have been leading foraging courses and walks for a decade or more, as well as working as a supplier of foraged plants from a local organic estate and working with chefs and restaurants to find new ways to use wild plants, fungi and lichens in dishes served to the most discerning of clients. It is safe to say that a large part of my working life outdoors has been linked to foraging and wild food, even if peripherally on our bushcraft courses. But none of that would have been possible if there hadn’t been such a demand for information and training in this ancient activity – so with shops and food suppliers all around us, why is there such a cultural draw towards edible plants and fungi?

I have two theories on this, and they require a little unpacking. They may also be complete cobblers, but allow me to explain…

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The TV Chef

The first is what I call the ‘Fearnley-Whittingstall Effect’. Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall is inextricably linked with the long-running cooking, downsizing and Dorset-promoting stable of TV shows, books, courses and eateries bearing the ‘River Cottage’ name. The first series (River Cottage) was broadcast in 1999 and featured Hugh (Ferrously-Washinghaste) embark on a life living in a gamekeeper’s cottage in the grounds of Slape Manor near Netherbury, Dorset – growing vegetables, raising livestock and trying the life of a smallholder. There was an emphasis on barter-economies, food as payment and self-sufficiency where possible in the narrative of the show. Subsequent series expanded into the wider world of smallholdings and downsizing leading to the River Cottage empire as it stands today. It is pretty undeniable that River Cottage was the big break for Hugh Ferretingly-With…(OK, I’ll stop now I promise) and led to his rise as a campaigner for everything from sustainability within the fishing industry to highlighting the standards and conditions of commercial poultry-rearing. Hjs profile and brand has genuinely done some good, and I remain a firm fan. But River Cottage wasn’t his first TV escapade – that came several years earlier in the form of A Cook on the Wild Side.
This was a wild food-adventure in two parts, the first being a tour of the countryside in a converted Land Rover (the Gastro-Wagon), hunting for and cooking edible plants, fungi and protein in the feathered, furred, finned and shelled form. This was broadcast in 1995, with the second series moving to a narrow boat cruising the waterways of Britain. This is where I think the Fearnley-Whittingstall Effect began, not with River Cottage. When I speak to clients and interested folk about foraging in the U.K, and particularly on television, A Cook on the Wild Side does seem to have found it’s way into the group consciousness about foraging but is often confused as being part of a River Cottage series. I think the second-life that TV shows have online as YouTube clips has no small part to play in this, and you can find most of the series online in some form or another. It’s over 20yrs old at this point, but the content all holds up and the accompanying recipe book is still on our list of recommended foraging books.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was obviously not the first person to really popularise foraging in the U.K. – my personal belief is that honour goes to Richard Mabey and his seminal Food For Free, first published in 1972 but the very first book I pull out of the bag when I talk about foraging field guides. His work came at exactly the right time, coinciding with the birth of the sustainability movement and the post-hippy ‘hobbitification’ of the British countryside by downsizers, small-scale farmers and those seeking The Good Life. A guide to the most commonly found edible plants, fungi, seaweeds and coastal foragables in the U.K. with background information and illustrations that just draw the reader in. It was hugely successful, and is still popular – but I think Hugh had a greater effect just by being on television. In the same way the Ray Mears did not invent the term bushcraft (or bush craft), or even write THE book on the subject – his early appearances on the BBC magazine show Tracks in 1994 led to the many shows that firmly embedded him in the national consciousness as “that bushcraft bloke”. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall with A Cook on the Wild Side and River Cottage did not invent the idea of foraging or wild food, or indeed first bring the idea to the modern public – but they did create the content that most people identified with.

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An Ancient Urge?

The next theory is that of a dormant instinct embedded in all Homo sapiens (you lot). I think we can safely say that we’ve done quite well as a species – we’ve certainly killed off (literally) the competition from other hominin species over the last few hundreds of thousands of years. Reassuringly we are also deemed to be the species of “least concern” by International Union for Conservation and Nature (according to the IUCN Red List). So we have that going for us.

Our success is built on many things – language, development and use of tools, group communication and shared goals, the ability to discuss and visualise something we haven’t seen. We ‘won’ the evolutionary race (a dubious honour) through adaptation and improvisation, through problem-solving and out-thinking our stronger, faster and more resilient hominid cousins.
How long we have been doing that for is under some debate, and new evidence suggests that we may have evolved as a distinct species as much as 350,000 years ago (or even earlier, it’s not difficult to get anthropologists arguing over this). The broad point is that we have a few hundred thousand years under our belts, and the ancestors we evolved from (and alongside, there’s plenty of overlap between the timeline of species) shared a lot of our physical and mental characteristics. To achieve any of what we have we needed to fuel ourselves. This means eating, and prior to the invention of farming (probably around 20,000 years ago, depending on your definition of farming), that meant foraging.

To wander through a forest, an open scrubland, a meadow or along a river or seashore and be able to spot the edible or useful plants and the potentially harmful ones is certainly a skill, but it should be one we are still hard-wired for. There is a theory that any ability we have to visualise a mental map of things that are useful to us (our home in relation to the local shops or pub, or the layout of our workplace or home) comes from the mental maps our ancestors created to locate and memorise the ethno-botanical resources that we needed for daily life. It’s likely a paleolithic resident of the British Isles would know the likely spots to find the fungi that were good to eat after the autumn rains, or the trees that provided thorns that could be used for fishhooks. When every physical object you use or create has to come from nature you need to know where to find it – and without paper or Google maps it needs to be stored in your head.
The way we process information and ‘data’, and the biochemical system that follows on from that processing, is built on our extensive history of foraging and hunting for our food and gathering the raw materials for everything else we used. The part of our timeline where we live in communities of more than 60-100 people, grew our food in fields and penned enclosures and exchanged labour in return for food and resources provided by others is just a blip at one end. It can be argued that the way we live now is essentially an experiment, and some would also argue that we’re probably failing at it.

But what has that got to do with modern humans paying good money for a man with a beard to lead them through a forest and point at edible weeds?

Okay, so this is the theory I work to – we are interested in foraging for the same reason we enjoy sitting next to a campfire poking the embers with a stick. It is quite literally what we are built to do. We evolved to do just that, and any parallels we can find in modern human activity (Hunting for Pokemon anyone? How about chasing down other hominins over obstacles and through muddy watercourses in Tough Mudder events?) is not coincidental – we’re just finding ways to exercise our hunter-gatherer brains and exploit the chemical reward system of dopamine. We pursue the idea of foraging for the same reason we do other things that bring us closer to ‘nature’ or ‘the landscape’ – deep down we know that is where we came from and what we are part of. Any ideas we have that we are civilised urban beings separate from the mud, twigs and rain ‘out there’ is justification after the fact – we removed ourselves from nature so we need to justify it as ‘development’ and ‘progress’. We’re still just shaved apes after all.

A Prime Time to Forage

So that’s it. It’s based on my own experience which is 99% from the U.K., and no doubt I have some unconscious bias that makes me overlook something that is blindingly obvious to you. The places are already filling up for our 2018 Foraging and Wild Foods courses as people buy places as gift vouchers for friends and family and I have a couple of TV and media enquiries about doing consultancy on different shows (as happens every year). The interest in foraging shows no sign of slowing, and I think it comes from cultural highlighting of the subject in the right way at the right time (Sunday or Tuesday evenings at around 8pm?) married with the innate need to hunt for our resources in the wild woods.

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