The laws governing the foraging activities are a bit complicated, because there is an individual right to forage bound to a set of intricate laws.
This article is intended to help you understand the different areas you need to be aware of. Please note It should not be relied upon as the definitive law. This is just the understanding of a passionate forager, though you’ll find links and references to the official government sites.
Good practices and good communication will keep you on the right path.
The laws and regulations 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). Always check local byelaws affecting your area.
The right to collect fruit, foliage, flowers and fungi
The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that: “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.”
Therefore, there is a common law right to forage for “the 4 f’s” as long as it’s for your own personal use and it’s growing wild. Picking cultivated crops or collecting wild food with commercial purposes would be considered theft.
Private property and trespassing laws
Before picking on private land, you need the landowner’s permission.
This does not apply to Scotland, where the ‘Right to Roam’ is enshrined in law, codified into Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and the following Scottish Outdoor Access Code. People only enjoy these rights if they exercise them responsibly by respecting environment, people’s privacy, safety and livelihoods.
There are some cases where having to ask would be foolish and so common sense must be exercised; you don’t need to phone your council to pick some hawthorn berries off a street tree or nettle leaves in a derelict garden.
Byelaws on collecting
Some places where access is permitted will have byelaws which may remove or control some of these common rights to collect wild food. There should be notices displayed somewhere near the entrance.
Local byelaws can be passed by councils, National Trust and government conservation agencies such as Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Countryside Council for Wales.
Right to roam, not to forage
Another exception to the common rights is under the Countryside Rights of Way, (CROW) Act, 2000, which gives people the right to roam on open countryside, defined as ‘mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land’.
People can enjoy CROW land for ‘open-air recreation’, which is not expressly defined.
National Park Authorities or County and District Councils have powers alongside Central Government, to enforce CROW.
Prohibition of uprooting a plant
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) states that it is an offence to uproot any plant from any land without permission from the landowner or any authorised person. Uproot is defined as to dig up or otherwise remove the plant from the land on which it is growing and the term plant seems to include algae, lichen and fungi.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and others
Plants featured in the declaration of a SSSI are protected and it might be illegal to collect them without permission from the relevant bodies: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Natural Heritage or the Council for Nature Conservation in Northern Ireland.
In the case of Scotland, the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 make it illegal to pick any wild plants or fungi on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or a National Nature Reserve (NNR) without the express permission of Scottish Natural Heritage, who would first require you to present written permission from the landowner.
There are a number of endangered plants specifically protected by law on Schedule 8 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and it’s illegal to pick or damage them by anyone, including the landowner.
There is also a Red Data List of rare species, including plants and fungi. The public must be aware of such species and never pick any of these nor disrupting its habitat by careless foraging or damaging activities.