Before you begin to read the ‘Wild Food Code’, please bear in mind that there are a vast number of rules to remember. Not only in identification, but also the law, safety and care of the environment you are going to be foraging in.
During my time teaching others about wild foods and bushcraft, I have heard some truly shocking stories, but by far the majority of these could have been easily avoided, and if I’m honest, common sense alone would have steered most away from the majority of these hazards.
The rules I have set out below are intended to keep you, and the environment safe, but please still use your common sense and natural instincts. I firmly believe that many of us have a sixth sense when it comes to living from the land. If you feel something is unsafe to use or eat, then take heed, and leave it out!
Below you will find some of the most basic rules which should be known by anyone foraging from the land. It’s also wise to keep to date with the countryside code which can be found here.
1) Keep it simple – if you are new to foraging, it’s always best to learn a few easily identifiable and common species first, such as Stinging Nettles (Urtica dioica). You will need a good identification guide to plants along with a wild food guide, such as this one, Food for Free. It’s still very important to identify common plants correctly. If you are still unsure, then book yourself onto a beginner’s course. I run these most years, and they are carried out in a lovely, relaxing environment.
2) The ground you’re on – it’s important to gain permission to forage from the land if it doesn’t belong to you. This is always an unfortunate one, as some of the best wild foods are usually found on private land. Most land owners will be happy for you to gather wild foods as long as you’re not encroaching on their orchards or vegetable patches! Gaining permission to hunt is much harder as it comes with its own complications and insurance issues. Failure to gain permission can result in fines and possible arrest, or a backside full of lead shot if caught poaching!
3) Can I eat it? – you may hear about ‘edibility tests’, but these are really not needed in a non-survival situation. But, it is vital to identify any wild food with absolute certainty. You need to cross-reference each identifying feature with a good identification guide. Only once this has been done and you feel comfortable should you attempt to eat any of your wild foods. If you have never tried a particular wild food, then I always advise only eating a small part at first, not because it means its toxic, but as with any new food it may not agree with you.
4) Don’t be fooled – one thing that many foragers don’t seem to be aware of is that just because one part of a plant or tree is edible, doesn’t mean each part is. For example, the leaves may be edible, but the seeds may be toxic. The berries may be a tasty treat, but the seed inside is toxic, or the roots are safe, but the foliage is not.
5) It looks clean, so it must be? – not necessarily. It’s very important to only gather wild foods from clean areas. Busy roadsides should be avoided, as should any areas around agricultural land, or public areas where councils may have sprayed the flora with nasty pesticides which can be harmful. Any bodies of water which look stagnant should be avoided, along with anything that grows around the edge. Ponds located on farmland can also be dangerous due to runoff from the worked land.
6) Is that an almond I smell? – if you pick up on an almond-like aroma then this indicates hydrogen cyanide. Hydrogen cyanide is toxic to humans in large amounts. Although in small quantities, it is said to be beneficial to the body. Many foods contain small traces of hydrogen cyanide, as do some harmful species, so do your homework!
7) Moderation is the key – you will hear some people say that particular wild foods are not actually safe to eat, whilst others will argue they are. Usually there is an argument for both sides to some degree. A species which often receives mixed reviews are elderberries (Sambucus nigra). These do make some people feel a little sick if eaten raw, but I have known people eat them like grapes and live long and healthy lives. The leaves are toxic though! Most foods with a long history of use by humans are safe (with the acceptation of a few), but are best used in moderation, as with most foods.
8) Hands off – never take the seeds of annuals, and never, ever take more of any wild food than you actually need. It’s very important to take only small amounts, even of abundant species, as local extinctions are possible if the species is over utilised. A good example of this would be that of the primrose (Primula vulgaris) which is now rarely seen as a "true" wild species.
9) Fishing for a meal? – you don’t currently need a license in Britain to fish in saltwater environments, so effectively you can catch a free meal. Inland waters are also a good source for fish, but you do need a rod license to fish these waters, and many will frown upon the taking of fish. I would also suggest checking local laws and always seek permission from the owners.
10) Shellfish – if gathering shellfish for the pot, be particularly careful to gather from only the cleanest of waters. Shellfish are notorious for poisoning the unsuspecting forager. I won’t go into too much depth here about the rules of collecting shellfish, as there will be a dedicated section on the site in the near future.
11) Still in doubt? – then leave it out. As you now know, it’s critical to identify any wild food with certainty. If you are not sure about how accurate your identification is, then don’t use/eat your find. Instead, keep reading and book yourself onto a reputable course.