Identifying plants and mushrooms can take time, and even with that knowledge, questions may remain about the legality of picking those wild edibles. Where is foraging allowed? Can I pick fruit from street trees? Is it illegal to pick wild garlic?
It’s important to be aware of our rights, restrictions, and responsibilities when it comes to foraging, in order to avoid inadvertently damaging the local ecology or violating the law.
This guide aims to provide all the necessary information to forage safely and legally in the UK. Understanding British foraging laws can help you enjoy the benefits of foraging confidently without getting into trouble.
What can I legally forage?
Within Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) (England and Wales only, though similar in Scotland) you will find the following:
“subsection (3) A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose.”
This means that you are legally allowed to pick anything growing wild for personal consumption, including the 4 f’s (fruit, flowers, fungi, and foliage) from any land. However, taking cultivated crops without permission is considered theft and is illegal.
This provision does not apply to seaweed or if the plant or mushroom in question is listed as endangered species, even if you are the landowner.
Note that the quotation above refers twice to “any land” and highlights “although not in possession of the land”. This takes us to the next point.
Where can I legally forage
As previously mentioned, you are permitted to pick wild plants and fungi for personal consumption from any land. However, it is important to obtain permission from the landowner before accessing private land.
Now imagine that you are picking blackberries, without landowner permission. You would not be committing a criminal offence doing so, because foraging is not considered theft. However, it is still considered trespassing, which is a civil wrong.
A landowner who confronts you whilst trespassing on his land is unable to confiscate the contents of your basket, as they belong to you. However, you still must leave the land at the earliest opportunity.
Private land in the UK
Bear in mind that most of the land in the UK is privately owned. Do not assume a city park or a footpath in a field will always be common land. It’s often a private property that you are granted access to, in which you will be bound to a certain set of rules.
Although farmland is definitely private property, you will always find public footpaths running around, sometimes bridleways and byways as well. Those are generally considered fair game as long as you observe the Countryside Act.
Can I pick fruit from street trees and shrubs in the UK? Most roads, country lanes and the adjoining verges are owned by the Highways Agency and the local authorities. Additionally, most of the pavements are owned by the local council.
While it is not practical to seek permission to forage from these authorities in every case, common sense must be exercised. For instance, it is unlikely that a council will require permission to pick fruit from a street tree or nettle leaves from a derelict garden.
Scotland’s Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 grants a universal “right to roam” law, allowing individuals to access all types of land for recreational and educational purposes with restrictions. Access rights are granted only if exercised responsibly.
CROW Act and Right to Roam
Foraging laws can be further complicated by additional legislation, such as the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act, 2000 (applying to England and Wales only).
This legislation grants unrestricted access to designated areas of open land. This includes upland areas, downlands, heath and mountain, as well as land voluntarily opened up by a landowner.
The access is granted to the public for recreational purposes, although this is not explicitly defined. There are certain restrictions on what activities can be carried out in these areas, and the forager will be affected by the following clause:
“Section 2(1) does not entitle a person to be on any land if, in or on that land, he –
(l)Intentionally removes, damages or destroys any plant, shrub, tree or root or any part of a plant, shrub, tree or root.”
It is important to note that any rights of way that run through designated CROW Act land are not considered part of the designation.
This is because rights of way generally come with the right to forage, even if the land surrounding the right of way is designated as open access land.
It is still important to respect the environment and exercise caution while foraging along rights of way, but it is generally considered permissible to do so.
Local byelaws restricting foraging
Before heading out to forage in any area, it’s important to do your research and check local bylaws and regulations. This can be done by contacting the local council, reading any available signs in the area, or checking online resources.
Byelaws are regulations set by local councils, National Trust, and government conservation bodies like Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Countryside Council for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
These byelaws may include restrictions on foraging, camping, lighting fires, and other activities that could potentially harm the environment or disturb wildlife.
For example, in some Royal Parks of London, such as Hyde Park, Richmond, St James, Greenwich, or Kensington Gardens, there are byelaws in place where you are not allowed “interference with any plant or fungus”. This means that foraging may not be permitted.
Epping Forest has specific byelaws that apply to foraging. The topic of foraging in this area has been debated among enthusiasts due to annual newspaper articles suggesting a problem with commercial foraging that was never proven in the first place.
In the New Forest, the Forestry Commission had previously placed signs indicating that mushroom foraging was prohibited. However, visitors are legally allowed to forage for personal consumption, and confiscating foraged goods could be considered theft.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s) legislation and Natural Reserves
SSSIs are scattered across the country, each with their own unique characteristics and ecological importance. While some are privately owned and have no public access, others are open for recreational and educational purposes.
A SSSI is designated by government bodies like Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage, Countryside Council for Wales, and Northern Ireland Environment Agency to protect and conserve areas of ecological interest, including habitats and species.
Each SSSI has a list of ‘Potentially Damaging Operations’ (PDOs) that may require permission from the government agency and landowner before being carried out. These lists can be obtained from Natural England on request or checked online (England only).
These lists of SSSI PDOs often forbid the “removal of plants“, including ecologically significant species. Legal action can only be taken if authorities can prove that the species was actively damaged.
However, in Scotland, collecting wild plants or fungi in a National Nature Reserve (NNR) or a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) is illegal without permission from Scottish Natural Heritage and the landowner.
Then you might be wondering: can you forage in National Parks? Foraging is generally allowed in National Parks and some conservation organizations even promote it on their reserves. However, it’s important to be aware of protected species and follow the rules.
Endangered plant species UK law
There are many plants and animals listed as protected species under the ‘Schedule 8’ of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981). It is a criminal offence to intentionally damage them in any way. This applies to anyone, including the landowner.
Although none of the species listed within the Schedule 8 are recommended on this site, one must always be aware of such species and that they may be inadvertently damaged by careless foraging.
The ‘Red Data List‘ UK is a database of rare species, maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), assesses their risk of extinction, from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘critically endangered. Avoid picking any species on this list.
You should also be aware that some non-native and invasive species are subject to strict controls and it is illegal to collect or propagate them. Such species can have a harmful impact on the environment, economy and public health.
For example, Japanese knotweed can cause damage to buildings and infrastructure, and its removal can be costly. Before foraging, it is important to familiarize yourself with the presence of invasive species in the area and avoid collecting them.
Is it illegal to dig up plants in the UK?
As seen earlier, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) states:
“if any person […] not being an authorised person, intentionally uproots any wild plant not included in that Schedule, he shall be guilty of an offence.”
Therefore it is unlawful to uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier.
For this purpose, uproot is defined as to “dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing.” The same protection is given to all plants in Northern Ireland, under the Wildlife (Northern Ireland) Order, 1985.
This leaves roots of common plants like dandelion and burdock off the menu unless you get permission from the landowner.
Is commercial foraging allowed?
Claims of widespread commercial foraging for restaurants in the UK lack solid evidence, often based on anecdotal reports. While there may be some localised occurrences, there is no clear evidence to suggest that it is a significant problem nationally.
Under the Section 4 (Property) of the Theft Act (1968) it is considered theft to pick wild food from private land without the owner’s permission. This means that even if the foraged items are not sold, taking them without permission is still a criminal offense.
Commercial foragers pick wild ingredients to sell, either owning the land or with permission from the landowner. They are not required to hold a commercial foraging license, but must obtain permission from the landowner to forage on private land.
What knives are legal to carry in the UK?
When foraging for mushrooms, carrying a knife can be useful to cut fungi clean. However, some people may be concerned about carrying a knife while foraging and potentially getting into trouble with law enforcement.
The Criminal Justice Act (1988) says:
“It is illegal to carry a knife in public without good reason, unless it has a folding blade with a cutting edge 3 inches long or less”.
Therefore, it is recommended to use a Swiss Army knife with folding blade or a similar tool when picking mushrooms. It’s also a good idea to carry a mushroom field guide in your rucksack to back up your story in the case you were questionned.
It is important to keep in mind that the information provided here is based on the understanding of a passionate forager, rather than a legal professional. As such, this should not be considered as the definitive foraging law.
To ensure accuracy and legality, it is recommended that you reference the paragraphs quoted from the legislation and visit the government’s official pages for further information and guidance.
Bear in mind that laws and regulations are subject to change and may vary between the four countries that make up the UK (the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not covered by UK law).
While it may seem daunting at first, it is generally acceptable to pick wild food within reach of a public right of way, as long as it is growing wild and not on private land without permission.
However, exercising common sense and following the country code is always recommended to ensure that you stay within the legal boundaries and respect the environment.