Is Foraging Sustainable? A Conservationist’s Perspective


Dave Winnard, of Discover the Wild, is a professional naturalist, keen birder and moth-er. He has worked with the Royal Horticultural Society, The Woodland Trust, the Wildlife Trust, RSPB, and many other organisations around his home in Lancashire, raising awareness of wild foods. 

“But surely foraging isn’t sustainable and will have an effect on nature in the long run?” a woman asked me while I was leading a mushroom workshop. This is a question I seem to be being asked more and more these days.

I forage. I love to go for a walk and pick wonderful spring greens like nettles, ramsons and sea beet, I also love to pick wild mushrooms like chanterelle, penny bun (porcini)  and wood hedgehog. To me there is nothing finer than being able to go in to my local area and enjoy wild tasty treats when they are in season.

When I going foraging I know exactly what I am picking, how much and from where. In some cases the more you pick, like the green tops of nettles, the more it grows. With others I only take what I need, for example penny buns, I could easily pick 200 fruiting bodies from one spot each autumn, but I don’t, I take a few to eat, some to store, and that’s enough for me.

Dave's Granny

Starting with the mushroom count early in life, and Dave has 25 years’ worth of data.

Recording wildlife is what I do best, indeed it is how I got into foraging. My grandma and I would go for walks and she used to pay me one penny for every common species of mushroom I found, two pennies if it was uncommon and five pennies if it was rare, at the end of the walk we would go to the sweet shop with whatever I had earned and get some sweets. So there are some woodlands we have monitored for over 25 years in terms of the species and abundance of them. Whilst I forage in these woodlands for plants and mushrooms there has been no loss of these species, we have no evidence with our data that that is happening at all.  In fact, many have increased and have more fruiting sites. 

foraged chanterelle

” It’s our right to go out into our green spaces, however encircled with concrete they might be, and feed ourselves. “

I also look at foraging in another way too, that it’s our right to go out into our green spaces, however encircled with concrete they might be, and feed ourselves. One million of our fellow citizens are visiting food banks who could have access to fresh greens, mushrooms and even fruit. There are many tons of fruit that simply rot in my native Greater Manchester because they just land on concrete next to roads etc, yet the food is still very, very good.

So whilst we had lunch, I informed the woman on my workshop of this and of my opinion: foraging is good for us and the environment and we should be doing more of it.

I did also point out that the pink lady apple she was eating was from New Zealand and had she considered the environmental impact of importation? She was eating some veg with pasta – had she considered the huge monocultures which make the fields baron for wildlife with little, if any biodiversity? (Just because the fields look green doesn’t mean its full of wildlife). Fungicides and pesticides with which crops like that are sprayed are directly linked to the loss of bees and other insects that all of us need. The chocolate spread she had with dessert is probably the thing that shocked her the most. She had no idea that by buying it she was directly funding the loss of rainforest and the destruction of habitat for iconic species like Orangutans and the Sumatran Tiger, of which there are now only 400 left in the wild.

By comparison, my lunch box contained some nettle and ransom soup with homemade veg stock, all of which was pretty much sourced from the bottom of the garden.

Wild Garlic

“We all make choices that in some way impact the environment”

Now I am not suggesting everyone should make drastic adjustments to their lives and never buy anything and go off-grid. But what I am saying is that we all make choices that in some way impact the environment. I drive and I am writing this sat at my desk on my computer using electricity, these impact the environment, but where possible I try and make decisions that will reduce the impact on the environment, and foraging, rather than buying fruit and veg wrapped up in plastic and shipped half way around the world is one that will help to reduce this impact.

Done sensible and responsibly, foraging can re-connect people with nature, reduce their food miles and give people a more healthy, varied, balanced diet. It may also make us question our own actions. We perceive things in the supermarkets as ‘normal’ yet when you delve a little as to how they are produced, you discover some truly dark and horrific wildlife crimes and injustices.

Perhaps some people see people in ‘their’ park foraging and just don’t like the ‘Not in my Backyard’ idea and use the environmental impact thing as an excuse? I would be interested to know what was in their own cupboard before they judged others.

Picking nettles from the countryside a crime against nature? I think it is the start of saving the environment myself….

foraged porcini

Thanks to Dave for sharing his views. All photos in this article are his and used with kind permission.

Read more about our distillery’s sustainability work here >

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