“There’s an abundance of nutritious and tasty wild food growing all around us. This is food we are meant to be eating, food we have evolved to eat and food that will heal us.”

These are the words of Martin Bailey, a knowledgeable and passionate foraging guide who works to educate and help protect the millennia-old traditions of foraging local areas for food.

Martin works in and around Bristol and proves that even in the heart of a large city, we are surrounded by a wealth of wild sustenance. A few months back I braved the rain to accompany him on a foraging walk and was stunned by the abundance of edible plants we were able to source. From mushrooms to three-corned leek, Hawthorne, plantain (not the Jamaican kind but an intensely nutritious medicinal plant) and rosehip, all thriving in this surprisingly urban setting.

Healthy, sustainable shop-bought food comes with a price tag that many struggle to afford. Could local parks and wastelands provide subsidies to this growing issue and what barriers does a contemporary urban forager face?

The value of traditional ecological knowledge

With the help of Martin and a growing number of professional wild food foragers, we are unearthing some of the UK’s hidden traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). TEK is complementary to Western science and resource management, particularly in this age of rapid social and ecological change. Ecologists can use this knowledge to help identify ecological thresholds or tipping points.

Experienced foragers are well positioned to observe and report environmental variability over time, developing reliable descriptions of conditions for environmental assessments.

Working with nature

Traditional cultural foraging and hunting practices have, for the most part, been ecologically sustainable. There are examples throughout history where civilisations have over-exploited their environment, as in the case of Easter Island or Nauru in Micronesia. But there is also ample evidence of civilisations who have harmoniously nurtured landscapes and ecosystems from which they harvest their food.

In Paraguay, where the Ache people continue to subsist as foragers, they cooperatively hunt fish and game and gather berries, honey, greens and wild plants, sharing resources and rewards. Meanwhile the Pacific Northwest Native Americans are a highly complex society, subsisting on the sea and native animals. They have a deep reverence for nature, and their system of taboos prevents them from over-exploiting the environment.

Tracing back thousands of years, foraging is shown to have influenced evolution, causing changes in behaviour to one another and the environment, as well as physical developments. Humans learnt that it pays in economic terms to be cooperative, resolve conflict and to tread lightly on the earth.

For 95% of humans’ time on earth, we have been hunting and gathering food (and medicine) freely from the varied ecosystems of the world. Cultivated food, meanwhile, is a very recent development in the history of human civilisation.

The rise of agrarian culture

The Neolithic revolution from hunter-gatherer to agrarian life around 10,000 BC resulted in problems with nutrition because people no longer had access to the plethora of food sources available to them as nomads. Yet there still existed a number of nomadic people to keep foraging traditions and biodiversity alive.

However, the arrival of widespread agriculture in Britain changed how people managed natural resources. When England enclosed common lands for the Crown and private interests in the 17th century, many farmers and foragers were forced off the land and into cities. Allotments are a legacy of this process, established in the 19th century to give the “labouring poor” a means to grow food.

Managing natural resources

Much resource management today is governed by ecologist Garrett Hardin’s argument for the “tragedy of the commons” which is premised on the idea that ungoverned, people would over-exploit common land, depleting the resources of the local environment instead of managing it sustainably for the greater good.

Hardin’s theory was based on the assumption that people do not create norms and rules to manage available resources equitably – despite ample examples of this among indigenous people such as Subak farmers in Bali who meet each year to discuss and decide the management of the region’s rice paddies.

Arguably, most people won’t instinctively overexploit their environment. On a domestic level, people don’t eat all the food in the house because they know there are others who need to share it.

Today towns and cities must rethink resource management in the face of converging global problems from climate change to forced migration. They need to draw on a diversity of perspectives, including those at the grassroots level to understand new and productive ways to sustainably manage humans and nature.

In particular, an understanding of the role of ‘ecosystem services’ in the resilience of local environments should be at the heart of decision making on the management of natural resources, with input from people on the ground feeding in. Those with TEK, like many wild food foragers, have an important role to play in this.

Unfortunately the UK’s town and country planning system remains geared towards economic development and is shaped by discussions between public authorities and private interest groups. Consequently, this has excluded those that have the TEK to support ecosystem services from the decision-making arena. This is perhaps why wild foods, despite their value, are excluded from official statistics on the economic value of natural resources.

Wild behaviour

Not valuing wild foods has meant there is often conflict between foragers and the authorities. Foraging, after centuries of decline, is again increasing and it is becoming professionalised.

In some cases, this has led to claims of exploitation – as the Guardian reported in 2014 regarding ‘illegal gangs’ of foragers in Epping Forest. As demand for wild food increases, particularly in restaurants, it may be wise to employ foragers as local stewards in protected areas and green spaces to overcome such conflict.

In Bristol this failure to value foraging created debate when legislation was put forward that would ban people from uprooting plants, or taking any parts of them, in parks and public spaces – making daisy chains could be illegal. However, as history shows, foragers and those with knowledge of local plants are important to resource management, and can inform sustainable agricultural practices as well as the health and nutrition of a community.

Martin comments that, “There’s a tendency to view nature as being something that’s over there, somehow separate from us, to be admired but not touched, or to be harnessed and exploited, no matter what the cost. As foragers, we work with nature, encouraging native species to thrive.”

Taking action

In Sweden foraging is a common past time, with the law Allemannsrett allowing all ‘freedom to roam’ and forage in nature. There is a level of trust among Swedish people and an appreciation for nature that is less apparent in British laws and policies.

Foraging is at threat in the UK and we need more people to join a growing community of people interested in local ecosystems and the plants and animals that thrive in them. Seek out and learn from established local foragers, sign up for a wild food foraging course and keep this knowledge alive in our culture.

If this article has inspired you, please shout about these unsung heroes and ensure nature and the people that manage it are here for generations to come. I highly recommend Go Foraging if you are based in Bristol but there are thousands of other earth stewards up and down the country.

Photograph: Hornbeam Arts

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