Foraging & The Law
There are a few laws that relate to foraging in the UK and it's important that you have a basic understanding of these before heading out to forage. These laws relate to what you can pick, where you can and can't forage, and some of the equipment you might decide to take with you.
What We Can Do
The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 stipulates that we can freely forage for above-ground Flowers, Fungi, Fruit and Foliage (known as the Four F's) on common land, as long as they are growing wild, and it is for personal use only (i.e. - for the use by the forager and their family and not for commercial purposes). Common land is defined as a publicly accessible space, and growing wild means not purposely cultivated, so accessing a farmer's field or private orchard and foraging their crops is not permitted without permission. This is beacuse the plants were purposefully planted and are therefore not growing wild, and are also found on private property, which isn't common land.
Sounds simple, so far - we can forage on common land as long as the plants, fruits, flowers and fungi are growing wild, right?
Wrong! Unfortunately, there are a few other things we need to take into account.
What We Can't Do
One thing we can't do is uproot a wild plant without first seeking the landowner's permission. The Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 deals with above-ground parts only, so leaves, shoots, branches, berries, fruits, nuts and mushroom fruiting bodies are all on the menu. However, If we wanted to harvest a plant's roots, such as Burdock, Horseradish, Dandelion or Pignut; or subterrainian fungi, such as the elusive Truffle, we would need to seek the landowner's permission before digging them up, even if it is on public land. It does seems a little silly, but ultimately, this is the law.
Although the Theft Act 1968 stipulates that a person taking wild mushrooms from private land does not steal them (which means you are not commiting a crime if you take fungi or other wild growing plants), we could still fall afoul of other laws on private land, such as trespass. Trespass means accessing someone's privately owned land without permission, and doing so could result in a civil case being brought against you. It doesn't really matter that it is in effect legal to harvest and remove the items, the physical act of entering the land in the first place is all that is needed for a case - the land owner doesn't even need to show that they suffered a loss as a result. Trespass laws exist to protect our privacy and allow us to enjoy the land we own without nuisance. Let's face it, you probably wouldn't like it if a stanger came into your back garden or driveway to forage for plants and mushrooms, so this should make perfect sense!
All land is owned by someone, so it can sometimes be difficult to understand if the land you are walking in is private or public (common). A lot of land is publicly owned, or at least, publicly accessible, and you do have a right to enter and forage there. Parks, reserves, local woodland, forestways, bridleways, and other green spaces are often publicly accessible to all. The easiest way to get to grips with trespass is to look down. If you are on a road, path, pavement or bridleway, you most likely have a right of way there. If however, you come across a gate, fence, hedgerow, or wall, it is likely that the land beyond is private, and you are not allowed to enter there without permission, unless there is a public bridleway or stile that allows you to enter and continue your walk along a publicly accessible route through it. You come across these types of pathway regularly out in the countryside, and they are usually signposted with a wooden directional sign. Foresty Commission land is usually publicly accessible too, unless forestry work is being undertaken in a particular area. In short, there's an awful lot of land that you have a right to access for foraging, but if you do see a massive Giant puffball over a fence in a farmer's field, the easiest way of getting legal access to it, is to go to the farm house and ask permission first!
To complicate matters a little, some types of publicly accessible land have Byelaws that prevent foraging. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Nature Reserves, woodland, and some parts of National Parks may have byelaws in place to prevent foraging to protect the habitats of rare species of plants, fungi and animals. These areas will usually have signage up that will let you know that foraging isn't permitted, but it is always best to check if you have any of these types of area near you, and if foraging is permitted, using park or borough websites, and avoid them if they do. SSSIs especially should always be avoided - there are plenty of other places for you to forage.
The final law that may apply to you relates to the carrying of knives. A very popular foraging accessory is a foraging or mushroom knife. Although small, there are some requirements that will need to be met if you intend to carry one out on a forage. UK knife law states that a fixed bladed knife (or a folding knife with a non-locking blade) less than three inches in length is legal to carry in the UK. However, should you take it into an environment where you have no justification to carry a knife, such as an airport, petrol station, event, shop, supermarket, etc, then you should expect to be prosecuted. It is important to know that knives of any length are not illegal to own or carry, as long as you have ‘Reasonable Cause’ for doing so, and if you’re unable to show ‘Reasonable Cause’ then you could be prosecuted. Using a knife to cut and gather wild food during a forage is likely to be deemed as reasonable cause for carrying, but to avoid this, you could also consider using scissors or secateurs instead. Owning and using a knife must always be done so responsibly, taking the above into full consideration.
A Common Sense Approach
Generally speaking, foraging is an uncomplicated pastime, and you are highly unlikely to come across legal issues whilst undertaking it. The places that you currently go for walks will ultimately become the very same places that you forage, and, provided these areas are not privately owned, or have Byelaws preventing it, you can most likely forage there without cause for concern with respect to the law. Above all else, we must approach foraging with a responsible, common-sense attitude. If you do want to access private land, always seek permission to do so before entering. The vast majority of the time, land owners will be more than happy to let you access and take wild edibles, particularly as many are considered to be weeds, and a friendly chat about the plants and mushrooms on their land may even lead to happy, lasting friendships.
“... Nature’s law is stronger than any little law you have made for yourself ...”
Foraging Law FAQs:
What can I Pick?
You can freely pick the above-ground parts of the "Four Fs": Foliage, Flowers, Fruit & Fungi, as long as they are growing wild on Common Land and are for personal use only.
What does "growing wild" mean?
"Growing Wild" means plants and fungi that are not cultivated on purpose. Crops in a farmer's field, fruit from commercial or private orchards, or apples from your neighbour's garden can't be freely foraged without permission.
What is personal use?
Personal use means that the items you forage are for you and your family's personal consumption, and not for resale to restaurants or other commercial ventures.
What does "Above-Ground" parts mean?
Above ground means any part of the plant or mushroom that is above ground. If you want to uproot plants to harvest their underground parts, such as roots, then you need permission from the land owner, even on Common Land.
What does "Common Land" Mean?
Common Land is any publicly accessible space. These spaces include paths, roads, parks, walkways, bridleways, woodland, forests and beaches. You cannot freely pick on privately-owned land without first gaining permission to do so from the landowner.
How do I know what is private land?
Private land is usually surrounded by fences, walls and hedgrows, such as farmer's fields or private gardens. Some privately owned land provides public rights of access in the form bridleways and these are usually accompanied by wooden signs and stiles. You can forage on a public bridleway, but shouldn't stray beyond the pathways provided, without permission.
Could foraging wild food be defined as stealing?
No. The Theft Act cleary states that foraging is not theft. You could however, fall afoul of trespass laws if venturing onto private ground without permission.
What is trespass?
Trespass is when you enter private land without permission. The owner of the land may choose to bring a civil case of trespass against you if you do so. If you wish to forage on private land, such as a farmer's field, it is always best to seek permission beforehand. Once permission is granted, you can then freely pick without the risk of falling afoul of the law.
Are there any places where I can't forage?
Yes. As mentioned, you can't forage on private land without permission. You also can't forage in some public spaces, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Nature Reserves, and some areas of National Parks. Some public green spaces also prohibit foraging through the use of Local Byelaws. To check for any of these, you should look at local authority websites or read the information signs usually placed in public access carparks.
Am I ok to use and a carry a foraging or mushroom knife?
Generally speaking, yes you are. Legally, your knife blade should not be lockable and be less than three inches in length. You also need to show "Reasonable Cause" for posessing it, and foraging would usually be considered so.
Be aware that your knife may no longer be considered legal if you are in posession of it in a place where you have no justification for carrying it, such as a supermarket or petrol station.