Wild foraging - reconnecting to our ethno-botanical heritage

ADDENDUM -  May 2009

Policy for wild foraging in Scotland

I have written of our blanding out of landscapes in Britain from millennia of farming, and how that has taken them to the point where they no longer support the human species, only the livestock that has despoiled them. Shortly afterwards, I came across a remarkable juxtaposition in the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales that powerfully demonstrated this point.

I was on my way to look at the tree planting on South House Moor in the Ingleborough NNR when I came across an area of limestone pavement that stood out from the rest - it had trees growing in it. This is not entirely uncommon in limestone pavement areas, a few ash and hawthorn have sometimes in the past “got away” in spite of the attentions of rabbits and sheep. But what was different was the range of tree species and the fact that there was a developing scrub that you just don’t normally get. The reason had to be that this area of limestone pavement was walled off, excluding the sheep from getting in from the surrounding area. And so I found rowan, bird cherry and ash, with willow, hawthorn, hazel, blackthorn and raspberry. In the ground layer there were greater burnet, wild strawberry, meadow sweet, bittercress, stonecrop, bedstraw, ferns and giant bellflower. By comparison, the landscape outside the wall had just grass around the pavement and no trees within it.

This is simple proof of what happens when the ecological impact of farming pressure is removed from our landscape. Native species re-establish, brought there by wind, birds and small mammals, and the returning natural state of a diverse vegetation community brings with it species that our hunter-gathering predecessors and modern day food foragers would recognise. In this case, the rewilding has been deliberate since the walled South House Pavement is a reserve owned by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and their aim has been for the site to develop naturally by maintaining stock-proof boundaries (1).

This was an undoubted bonus on my way up to the moor as it gave me cause to reflect on the difference in natural regeneration, as in this area of limestone pavement, and the need in the moorland area above it to give nature a helping hand. The conditions and seeding opportunities are so much less favourable on the moor: there is the commonality that the tree planted area of South House Moor is entirely enveloped in fencing that again excludes livestock, but the moor is a wetland of moss and some heather, acidic, very exposed and likely bare of existing trees or shrubs before replanting. In contrast, the limestone pavement area is freer draining, warmer from a lower altitude, a much easier ground to recolonise naturally from surrounding sources. On the moor, patch areas have been planted with birch, ash, oak, alder, hawthorn, juniper and willow (2). It will be a few years before these tree species are established enough to influence the ground layer sufficiently for them to seed in themselves, but also for the different herbaceous material to come in, re-establishing the natural mixture of upland plant communities. I did though watch three roe deer traverse the site, and so to them it is already proving to be a returning landscape.

The returning food potential of the rewilding limestone pavement also put me in mind of the wild landscapes I had seen in America where as well as the wild meat from deer, beaver, mountain sheep and buffalo, the wild food plants of the Native Americans could be seen in abundance: thus the expanses of camas lily and arrowleaf balsam in Yellowstone National Park; the vast areas of mules ears in Grand Teton NP; the astonishing array of fruiting shrubs beside the Curecanti Creek Trail in the Curecanti National Recreation Area; and seeing most of these and other food plants in all the designated wilderness that I walked.

Native American ethno-botanical heritage

Protected wildland in America is somewhat of an ambiguity. Species rich as it is, it is not there to sustain people nutritionally. You can’t stay in designated wilderness normally for more than three nights, and while you can hunt and fish there - provided you follow the restrictions applied in the regulated hunting area within which the wilderness area falls - you can’t harvest anything else. In the National Parks of America, while no hunting is allowed, you can fish in some lakes and rivers, but again you can’t disturb the vegetation. Unsurprisingly, this has always led to criticism of protected wildlands from surviving Native American communities since it is an exclusion of these peoples from some of the few areas that can be considered to be their ethno-botanical heritage.

That heritage has been the subject of increasing research, and the findings indicate that there has been an underestimation of the capability and extent of shaping of the landscape by native peoples before Euro-American settlement with non-native crops and livestock displaced them. In the continuing battle of ideals over wildland, this is used to refute the notion that Native Americans “lived lightly on the land” and that the wilderness we see today only came after people were abolished from those lands (3).

Native Americans in California used Black Oak acorns for making acorn meal. It is the case that the composition of some Californian woodlands indicate that they are adapted to fire by the relative abundance of black oak compared to conifers. Firing woodland destroys conifers and their seedlings, whereas the oak and oak seedlings re-sprout and re-establish themselves. There is also the suggestion that firing was a management tool for controlling pests such as weevil and worm by scorching on the tree, but as well by keeping the undergrowth and woodland litter in check where part of the reproductive cycle of the worm takes place (4).

The understanding of the use of fire in managing the landscape has greatly increased (5), but it should be considered that firing by Native Americans was as a result of their observation of what happened after natural fires had created disturbance in the landscape. They were utilising a natural phenomena, and perhaps in quite an often haphazard and uncontrolled way, the benefits of which could sometimes have been fortuitous.

More deliberate would have been the simple horticulture of the Sierra Miwok and Valley Yokuts in California, who by their centuries of sowing, pruning, selective harvesting, and burning made their landscapes productive to their needs (6). This was the transition to domestication of native plants within a natural landscape, and which indicates a degree of ecological knowledge. Modern day exemplars of this would be the Kayapo in Central Brazil who concentrate native plants by growing them in resource islands, forest fields, forest openings, and tuber gardens by selecting and transplanting a number of semi-domesticated native plants (7). But the Kayapo today, and the Native Americans before first contact with Euro-American settlers, were shaping their landscape from the rich resources of the wilderness that came before them since the Americas were not populated with humans until about 13,000 years ago. Thus the designated wilderness we see today is a valid expression of landscape, albeit that the Clovis culture, that early settlement into the Americas and from which its native peoples derive, extinguished many of the larger mammals of the Pleistocene (8).

Kat Anderson, one of the current protagonists for the importance of Native American management of landscape sees California's indigenous people as having been active agents of environmental change and stewardship (6). Her belief is that we no longer have the relationship with nature that these native peoples had, and in that separation our knowledge has been reduced to the point that we need to get reconnected. It is arguable whether the native peoples of California shared a conservation ethic, as she avows, but they would certainly have learnt from their mistakes. Anderson shows that overexploitation led to shortages that wild nature would have to struggle to renew, and it is the case that native peoples in California were responsible for the extinction of a number of species such as the flightless goose and the giant island mouse.

Andersen does allow though that designated wilderness as an untouched place, a standard and reference, should exist at one end of a spectrum, and which has human designed environments at the other end. For reconnection to occur, she believes there has to be a middle ground on that spectrum, where ecology and culture are brought together again and where complex knowledge is applied. She calls for ethno-botanical reserves to be set up by an equivalent department at Government level to the US Fish and Wildlife Service that sets up wildlife refuges. These ethno-botanical reserves would be places where in partnership with Native Americans, the correct relationship with wild nature could be learnt (9).

Permaculturists in America are embracing this surge in ethno-botanical interest. An inaugural gathering took place in May last year at the Lost Valley Nature Centre in Oregon, entitled Native Plants and Permaculture – a gathering of plant enthusiasts (10). The 100 participants sought common ground over the three days of the gathering between the Native Plant and the Permaculture communities. Their aim was to develop a view of an ecologically-integrated system of human sustenance combined with native habitat preservation in the Pacific Northwest. Tensions abounded: the Permaculture community often chooses plants for their utility rather than nativeness, and these have sometimes been dangerous invaders that are abhorred by native plant enthusiasts. Native plant enthusiasts ruthlessly eliminate rogue weeds, whereas Permaculturists often imbue them with soil building properties. In Britain, the Permaculture community is wedded to the concept of forest gardens, three-dimensional approximations of successional wild forests in which a range of useful plants, trees and shrubs are spatially arranged in self-sustaining, harvestable guilds. Again plants are chosen for their utility and multiple function, rather than necessarily for their nativeness (see Forest Garden).

Wild harvest in Britain

Britain has a legacy of harvesting wild foods that endures in spite of the massive reduction in landscape cover that gives opportunity for this wild food foraging. Sometimes, it has got us out of national emergencies such as when hundreds of tons of rose hips were collected during the 1940’s as a source of Vitamin C to replace citrus fruit denied us from abroad by war (11) . More recently, a 2003 survey in Scotland found that half those questioned had collected berries from the wild in the last five years, a quarter had collected mushrooms, while 14% had collected firewood (12). A few years later, a report on wild harvests from Scottish woodland concentrated on a small group of regular and experienced gatherers, and revealed the substantial range of forest products taken, and the contribution that these products made to the lives of the people who gather and process them (13).

It was unlikely, the authors noted, that the domestic and small-scale commercial collectors reflected in the report were putting at risk the species they were harvesting or the habitats in which they occurred. However, if the number of commercial collectors was to increase and commercial marketing of products took off, then what appeared to be viability in gathering would be lost. Moreover, there is an issue of uncertainty about the legality of gathering in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain?): the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 makes no explicit provision for gathering for personal consumption. Forestry Commission by-laws (Section 5 part vii) (Forestry Commission, 1982) appear to prohibit all gathering, although some FC locations currently advertise wild foraging events.

As there is in America, there is an imperative in Britain to move towards a contemporary ethno-botany, as much as there is also an ecological need to increase the amount of wildland in our landscapes. The two are interconnected since restoring native species allows us to recreate ecosystems and restore diversity, while potentially meeting some of our own needs in the process from such as wild foraging. There will be conflicts: we risk destroying that new wilder landscape if we don’t relearn our correct relationship with wild nature, if we just regard it as another resource to be plundered and over-extracted. In this context, it is important to note that wildcrafting, as wild foraging is known in America, is underpinned by ethics and guidelines. Bruce Buren writes of the complex ethical and practical considerations (14):
“[Ethical wildcrafters] assume responsibility for what they harvest. They make positive identification of plants before they gather them. They investigate the health of the ecosystem and the plant population before they harvest. They do not gather more than they need. They harvest only in appropriate habitats, never in vulnerable environments. They wear proper clothing and use the correct tools when harvesting in order to minimize any injury to the site. They obtain written permission from the owner before entering the land, or harvest on their own land”

In our reconnecting with our extended wild nature, we will need to be clear what areas of wildland are to be left untouched as reference areas and out from which an ethno-botanical renewal can take place. Then there will be the areas of the middle ground that range from foraged but unmanaged native habitat, through lightly managed native habitat, and on to predominantly native habitat within which some non-native species can be introduced for specific harvests. The Forest Habitat Network proposals amply illustrate a spatial model for these middle areas, and the developing approach of Analogue Forestry guides us on how to introduce non-natives into a predominantly native eco-system.

It is recognised that the effectiveness of core forest areas, such as ancient woodland, can be further enhanced by linking together by wildlife corridors that combine access to both water and woodland. These Forest Habitat Networks (15), often based on riparian corridors, permit forest-based species to move from one site to another. The aim of at least 30% tree cover in these corridors means that the landscape begins to function as if it were a single forest unit, but allowing these networks to be developed alongside other land uses. They thus present a strategic mechanism for the conservation of woodland biodiversity when there is little scope for large area afforestation.

Analogue Forestry arose in Sri Lanka around 1981 as an alternative to tree monocultures. It is a system of growing trees and plants to establish a tree-dominated ecosystem that is analogous in structure and ecological function to the original climax and sub-climax vegetation community of the location. The emphasis is on biological restoration, restoring degraded lands with native species to productive and ecologically-diverse forest ecosystems. It is not until all the ecological requirements of the location are satisfied that the economic value of harvestable species is considered, and the introduction often in the ground and shrub layer of non-natives can take place (16).

The Analogue Forestry approach seems to me to be a powerful bridging between the structurally similar forest gardens of Permaculture and the essential greater woodland infrastructure that Britain needs. A manual for Analogue Forestry (17) gives a set of principles for its design and implementation that would be familiar to any Permaculture Designer, and I think most Permaculturists will recognize it as a solution for the scaling up of forest gardens, but with a much needed re-emphasis on native species. It should also be noted that Analogue Forests within a Forest Habitat Network system could be part of the mix in buffer-zone systems, particularly appropriate to degraded agricultural land near protected areas.

Within the mix of the middle area proposed above, the attractiveness of the harvestable value of Analogue Forestry has the potential to reconnect Britain with its ecological and cultural heritage of woodland systems. There is every reason to begin implementing all the elements of the middle area now, working through the Regional Forestry Frameworks in England (18), the Forest Strategy for Scotland (19) and the Woodland Strategy for Wales (20).

Mark Fisher 16 October 2008

ADDENDUM -  May 2009

Policy for wild foraging in Scotland

The Scottish Government launched a policy on Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP) in April 2009. NTFP are defined in a number of ways in the document, but for the wild forager the principle one would be that they are annually renewed non-timber products that require no management. This definition covers fungi, berry, nut and pharmaceutical products.

The policy sets out how the Forestry Commission will manage the sustainable harvesting of NTFPs on the National Forest Estate. It covers the relevant legislation for the both the public estate and for collectors on private lands.

The Scottish Government’s Policy on Non-Timber Forest Products, Forestry Commission Scotland - February 2009

Mark Fisher 27 May 2009

(1) South House Pavement, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust  www.ywt.org.uk/nature_reserves.php?id=49

(2) Re-wildling of the uplands, Ingleborough National Nature Reserve (NNR), Ingleborough Complex SAC (Natura 2000), A brief review of the site  www.natura.org/DOC/uk_limestone_summary.pdf

(3) Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians, Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson Eds, Ballena Press, 1993 ISBN-13: 978-0879191276

(4) “Making Oaks and the Acorn Crop” by Helen McCarthy, in Before the Wilderness:

Environmental Management by Native Californians – see above

(5) Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness, Omer C. Stewart with Henry T. Lewis & Kat Anderson Eds, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002 ISBN-13: 978-0806134239

(6) Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006 ISBN 9780520248519

(7) Kayapo Indians: experts in synergy, Darrel Posey 1991 www.metafro.be/leisa/1991/7-4-3.pdf

(8) Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals , Josh Donlan, Scientific American June 2007

(9. Tending the wild – Kat Anderson at Toby’s Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, CA on August 4th, 2007, feralkevin blog


(10) Native Plants and Permaculture: A Gathering of Plant Enthusiasts, 11-13 May 2007, Lost Valley intentional community & educational centre   www.lostvalley.org/nature2007may

(11) Rose hips, in Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus 2007 ISBN  1 85619377 2

(12) Appendix 1: Omnibus survey results, in Wild Harvests from Scottish Woodlands - Social, cultural and economic values of contemporary non-timber forest products, Marla Emery, Suzanne Martin & Alison Dyke, Forestry Commission Scotland, 2006


(13) Wild Harvests from Scottish Woodlands - Social, cultural and economic values of contemporary non-timber forest products – see above

(14) Wildcrafting: A “simple” life fraught with a host of complex ethical and practical considerations, Bruce Buren, Rodale Institute 2004  www.rodaleinstitute.org/2004301/buren

(15) Habitat networks, Forestry Research  www.forestresearch.gov.uk/website/forestresearch.nsf/ByUnique/INFD-673ER6

(16)International Analog Forestry Network  www.analogforestrynetwork.org

(17) Analog Forestry Manual International Analogue Forestry Network (2006)  www.analogforestrynetwork.org/files/manual.pdf

(18) Regional forestry frameworks, England, Forestry Commission  www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-5LLET7

(19) The Scottish Forestry Strategy, Forestry Commission, Scotland 2006  www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-6AGGZW

(20) Woodlands for Wales, The Welsh Assembly Government’s Woodland Strategy 2001  www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-5NLKT7


www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk