Is foraging legal in the UK? Know the law

Biritsh law on foraging
A brief guide of the law concerning the picking of wild plants and mushrooms in the UK that will clarify all your legal questions.

Table of Contents

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.

The legislation that oversees SSSI’s in the UK is the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), amended in Scotland by the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004.

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.

Disclaimer

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).

Final thoughts

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.

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Picture of Alvaro // Wild Plant Guy

Alvaro // Wild Plant Guy

I am the human behind BritishLocalFood. As a forager and wild food educator, my aim is to inspire you to go outdoors, familiarise with your local plants and make the best of their culinary and medicinal properties, in the hope you'd pass on any knowledge gained down to the next generation.

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25 thoughts on “Is foraging legal in the UK? Know the law”

  1. I do not understand why anyone is encouraging people to take our wild flora! Has our wildlife not suffered enough damage at the hands of man (in the older non gendered sense). It is not good for our flora and fauna, people are digging up plants. I say on one forum someone said, ‘a pig nut, I hadn’t seen one in years, so I dug it up to take home and eat it’! Why? No wonder you haven’t seen one in years! Encouraging people on an overpopulated wildlife stressed land is just irresponsible! There is no need whatsoever to take our wild flora. By encouraging people to forage, you inevitably encourage people to do it irresponsibly. It’s just maths just 10% of people are doing it irresponsibly then encouraging more people to forage makes that 10% a bigger number, and you get individuals appearing on TV making it look like a ‘very wholesome thing to do’ and they often do not understand the dangers nor do they care. Sure, I can see it’s fine for one or two people to take a few leaves but, encouraging a whole nation to do is not one or two leaves. I get that you’ve laid out the rules but, you are inevitably encouraging people to do it wrong because people don’t take in this amount of information and retain it. People are clearly left with the impression, the sound bite that taking from wild is a good thing when it is absolutely not! I ask you, what are you hoping to gain by encouraging people to take our wild flora?

    Reply
    • Hi Jim,
      I don’t know where you get your food from. Personally, I prefer harvesting abundant wild dandelion leaves from local grasslands for my salad rather than opting for lettuce leaves packaged in non-compostable plastic, cultivated in the arid regions of southern Spain, and transported with a significant carbon footprint. Opting for local sources for our food makes logical sense; otherwise, we risk encouraging not only an entire nation but an entire continent to rely on vegetable supplies grown in southern Europe, where vast areas of the local landscape have been destroyed to keep up with international demand.

      I consistently advocate for responsible foraging and provide specific resources on my website to help individuals incorporate this practice into their lives. However, I struggle to understand how I bear responsibility for the choices made by a select few who may behave irresponsibly. Such thing is beyond my control.

      I encourage you to delve deeper into this topic by reading the following article, where I elaborate on these ideas further: https://britishlocalfood.com/why-foraging/

      Reply
  2. I still think I will check with a local council member or experienced local forager in my case as I have been given a foraging class but they were still unclear what is allowed locally, for example a handful of pignuts is no problem but if I wanted to uproot dandelions from the green of our town park (as opposed to the paths and edge around it) I do not know whether the park counts as common ground.

    Reply
    • Hi Dean, you must obtain explicit consent from the landowner before removing any wild plants from the ground, whether it’s dandelions or pignuts. However, it’s unlikely that anyone within your local council is well-versed in foraging laws, so it’s a bit of a grey area here.

      Reply
  3. Unfortunately, you haven’t correctly understood the UK law on carrying a knife in a Public Place within the UK. While you might get away with claiming the excuse that your Swiss Arny Knife is being carried for foraging, nevertheless, it has a “locking blade” which makes it illegal no matter what the length of the blade.

    I suggest you re-read the Act and modify your statement about the Swiss Army Knife accordingly.

    Otherwise, loved your article,
    Ted

    Reply
    • Hi Rick, thanks for the feedback, however I don’t think there is anything innacurate here. Not all Swiss Army Knives are legal in the UK, but you can still purchase the ones which are non-locking AND with cutting edge less than 3 inch. As long you follow the rules, they are completely fine and within the law.

      Reply
    • Ted
      The last Swiss Army knife I had was not lockable , where as Leatherman tool knives are .
      I maybe wrong though .
      Kind regards
      Paul

      Reply
  4. Whilst noting fruit fungus etc, I found article difficient on foraging for wild which is surely an ancient right dating from medieval times and before. Trees naturally shed branches (or die completely) and foraging for firewood a an established activity. Certainly some woodlands are privately owned (thus trespass/theft laws apply), but most UK woodland is public (excepting royal forests) and public are surely permitted to forage for wood (especially in current era of fuel shortages/expenses)?

    Reply
  5. This page confuses byways and public footpaths. You can walk on public footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways, byways open to all traffic, permissive accesses (as posted by the land owner), or any road (whether metalled or not) except motorways, any of which can be locally prohibited by a Traffic Regulation Order.

    Reply
  6. A common misconception about foraging promoted by the food and drug industry is that is dangerous from a food poisoning perspective. The human touch, smell and taste can naturally detect and avoid most toxic plants (with the exception of mushrooms which ARE dangerous from a food poisoning perspective which humans naturally have a phobia towards), and if you signal all clear, just eat an amount the size of a small fingernail. That way if the plant turns out to be toxic you are not overdosing. Unlike foraging, there is no natural defence mechanism against food poisoning from processed and unhealthy foods. There would not be any improvement in diet safety by avoiding foraging.

    Reply
  7. I tend to go after weeds or plants that grow easily or in abundant numbers when foraging. I don’t want to put threatened species in danger. You should be OK eating plants that are common and grow easily in the wild.

    Reply
  8. I agree, the land is for all & sundry & we are free to roam & forage as long as common sense is adhered to as not to over forage or cause destruction…

    I know of a few local derelict gardens, which can be foraged, now I gained this knowledge…

    We are also caretakers of the land, just like our forebears, they were never restricted before councils & governments came along…

    I find it hard to comprehend that foraging is no longer taught in schools or by parents alike…

    Reply
  9. a human being is an animal the only one that cannot go or eat pick what they like. we have to ask another animal permission again. we also have to ask another animal if we can lay down and sleep when we are laboured and need rest. this also applies to drinking water. people say they own the land not so it belongs to all animals who have a right to live.

    Reply

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