Waterway Safety

Waterways can be an excellent place to forage, with rich fertile banks and some pretty distinctive aquatic wild foods to be gathered and enjoyed, too. They do however, come with some unique dangers that need to be assessed appropriately, especially if foraging there with children. This section looks at the risks associated with waterway foraging and how to keep you and your family safe at these diverse and beautiful locations.

A shallow reservoir run-off, one of our favourite foraging locations.

Avoiding Deep Water

It is important to remember from the outset that waterway foraging should never require you to enter, or indeed, wade, into deep water - there really is no need, as most plants will be found either on fertile banks, or in very shallow water. Wellies (and maybe waders for the kids) are usually all you'll need to enjoy the waterways in your area. Taking this approach will avoid the higher risks associated with deep waterways, such as fast-moving currents and extremely cold temperatures that can potentially lead to serious injury, breathing difficulties, and even death. That being said, as a forager, you may accidentally fall into deep water, for example from the bank of a reservoir, and this is discussed in more detail in Reservoir & Canal Safety, below.

Taking a little break from foraging for a splash in the river.

Slippery When Wet

Entering shallow waterways for a forage is always great fun, especially for children, and allows you to access areas that you wouldn't ordinarily be able to. Arthur and I regularly forage in a shallow reservoir run-off, and the diversity of wild plants there is simply wonderful. Sometimes, entering a shallow waterway is also essential, particularly if you need to cross a stream or ford to continue along your foraging route. It goes without saying that the combination of water and smooth, eroded riverbed rocks, create the perfect conditions for slips and trips, particularly if the water is murky, reducing your visibility. It's therefore always a good idea to wear stout wellies (as well as waterproof trousers if you have them) whenever you forage, just in case. It is important to remember that the gripping abilities of wellies and boots are always diminished in the prescence of water, so always take care of your footing and aid your balance using walking poles or sticks, wherever you can.

And another mid-forage splash-break.

Depth Perception

Rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs vary in depth from week to week, depending on rainfall levels and other factors such snow melt run-off in the hills. This sometimes makes depth perception difficult, as it's not always possible to see how high the water level is, even if you go there regularly. Deeper water creates a faster flow and a stronger pull, particularly in rivers, and therefore increases the likelihood of being swept of your feet when entering. Even if you're only going for a paddle-based forage in your wellies, or crossing a ford or stream, always test the depth of waterways with sticks or a walking pole to make sure that the water isn't too fast-flowing or deep for your wellies before entering. This is even more important if you plan on letting your children have a paddle or a splash, too. The prescence of murky water, large rocks, or uneven sections of river bed can also create sudden, unseen drops into deeper water, so always take care and supervise your children accordingly. Jumping into water is never recommended, particularly if the depth of the waterway is unknown.

Paddling is fun whatever your age. Naked paddling is perhaps best performed by toddlers.


Arthur loves rivers and waterways - he loves to paddle, jump and splash, as well as forage, but he always does so under close, direct supervision. We learnt this lesson the hard way - during an early Summer forage last year, Arthur ran ahead of us towards a forest ford. We called for him to come back, before chasing after him, but in only a few seconds, he'd managed to run out across the ford, slip and fall. Luckily, the fords in the area are designed for pedestrian crossing, so the water was only a few inches deep, but it still managed to fill his waders all the way to the top with icy-cold Northumbrian water and shake him up quite badly. We got to him in only a matter of seconds, but that was enough time for the accident to happen. The water was so cold, we had to strip him off and wrap him in my jacket. We were very lucky, as it could've been much worse. Supervision around waterways is absolutely essential.

A cold, sad, and soggy forest elf, after falling over on a river ford. We were very lucky.

Reservoir & Canal Safety

As beautiful man-made bodies of water, reservoirs and canals are very popular tourist spots, as well as excellent places for foraging. The main hazard associated with these is accidentally falling in (or deliberately jumping in!), and doing so could have a range of dangerours consequences. Firstly, getting out again may not be so easy. Many canals and reservoirs have steep, man-made banks to hold as much water as possible, this can make climbing out quite difficult if you do fall, or indeed, jump in. You would also quickly discover how very cold the water can get. They may look very enticing on a hot summer's day, but the low temperature of the water can cause the body to enter cold-shock, or even hypothermia, which draws blood away from your muscles to protect your internal organs. This can lead to drowning, even if you're a good swimmer. In addition, submerged debris and litter can cause injury, or reeds, and other plant life can get tangled around your limbs, preventing escape. The best way of keeping safe is to avoid any steep banks, and instead, sticking to open, flat and easily accesssible areas to forage, preferrably with defined footpaths and handrails for safety.

Reservoirs are stunning places to forage.

Parasites & Microbes

There are many wild edibles that can be found on the banks of waterways, but a few plants can also be found growing submerged in the water, such as Watercress, Bullrush and Water Mint. However, plants found submerged in waterways have the potential to harbour parasitic organisms, such as river flukes, particularly if there are grazing sheep or cattle nearby. To avoid becoming infected with these water-bourne body invaders, we should always try wherever possible to harvest plants from the banks, rather than those that are submerged in the water. If this isn't possible, then collect only the parts that are above the water-line, from the faster-flowing parts of the river, and always cook them thoroughly (or steep in boiling water for tea) before eating in order to kill any micro-organisms that may be living on the plants.

Water mint is one of our favourite wild herbs, with a lovely aniseed-mint aroma and flavour.

Safety for Other Activities

Arthur and I regularly head out to forage on waterways during the summer in our Kayak. We love exploring the wild, overgrown banks and inaccessible coves and islands where nobody goes. On a loch in Scotland, we once discovered an untouched island that was full of chanterelles - a truly magical experience! Whilst lots of fun, kayaking brings with it a whole new level of risk to consider, from having a well-maintained, waterworthy vessel, flotation devices, wetsuits, waterproof compartments for phones and other equipment, craft insurance, and a means of raising help in an emergency (such as flares). We also have to take currents and water temperature, should we capsize, into account as well. Whilst I do heartily recommend this method of getting around for waterway foraging, please do make sure you're both confident and competent before taking the plunge. Other fun waterway activities that foragers often indulge in include wild swimming and Ghyll scrambling, but these should be undertaken with an experienced guide.

A stunning September forage on Loch Awe.

“... The sea is a cruel Mistress ...”

Further Information

Waterway Safety

Information about keeping safe along Britains waterways can be found here: