Foraging in Argyll & the Isles

Scotland's Natural Coast

Connecting with nature and improving wellbeing have become increasingly important to many of us, especially in recent years. The Covid pandemic, war, the cost of living, increasingly erratic weather patterns and climate change have all taken their toll on both humans and wildlife.

But Covid did show us something else too, how wildlife could come back into spaces overrun by the mechanisations of our busy modern lives if left in peace. How, if forced to stay at home and fortunate enough to have a green space or garden, we could reconnect, perhaps growing our own vegetables, taking a walk or just taking the time to pause, watch and listen to our natural world. And with an interest in nature, so too has there been a growing interest in foraging, where our food comes from, what ‘wild’ foods we might eat in times of crisis or to benefit our health.

Argyll Outline Map

Connecting with Nature - The Art of Foraging

The desire to learn about an age-old art that was once a necessity for the survival of the first human hunter gatherers and for many of our own parents, grandparents and great grandparents during war, is in itself valuable. Learning about our own flora and fauna, what can be safely and sustainably eaten and how such foods can be incorporated into a more natural and healthy diet allows for e reconnection with the species that grow around us, from our own backyards to city parks, woodlands, rocky coasts and even mountain tops. Indeed, this is what many nomadic tribes still do across the world to this day, but in our modern busy lives much has been forgotten for the sake of speed and convenience.

Learning to forage for sustainable ingredients is a real joy, and even if you are familiar with blackberries, nettles and rosehips, there are an abundance of other species out there, which often come as a surprise. They are the plants so often busily weeded out or sprayed without the realisation that they can be a valuable and tasty food source. Think dandelions, docks, ground elder and hairy bittercress. Or invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed, Himalayan Balsam, and Chilean Rhubarb.

Importantly it is learning about what we can eat safely, where and how to collect wild species sustainably, correct identification – especially where species may be confused with a deadly lookalike – and knowing the law.

The Principles of Foraging

Get closer to nature, responsibly

Generally foraging principles allow for responsible collection of the four ‘F’s: foliage, flowers, fruit and fungi. This means:

  • Take little – just enough for personal use and leave plenty for wildlife.
  • Cut or pinch out neatly; don’t tear or pull up with roots (plants), holdfasts (seaweeds) or mycelium (fungi).
  • Spread your picking – don’t take everything from one patch.
  • Tread softly – be careful what other species you are walking over.
  • Choose thriving and common species.
  • Identify correctly – learn how to identify plants and fungi with a foraging instructor and through proper ID guides.
  • Learn about different hazards ie poisonous species, pollutants and chemicals, bacteria, waterborne diseases, pests, terrain, water, tides and weather. These aspects are usually covered as appropriate on courses run by instructors.
  • Members of the Association of Foragers and Heathery Heights offer foraging courses and advice and adhere to a strict code of conduct regarding sustainability and safety.

And be aware of the law:

  • Do not dig/remove of roots and bulbs without the landowner’s permission (& NatureScot’s*).
  • Do not collect or damage rare and protected species
  • Do not collect or damage species in protected areas ie National Nature Reserves (NNRs), most Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and anywhere there is a local bylaw. Permission should be sought from the landowner and NatureScot.
  • Invasive species have their own caveats and rules for collection to prevent their spread and may have been sprayed with dangerous chemicals. Such aspects are covered on most foraging courses.
  • Seaweeds are not included under the four ‘F’s, being mainly marine plants and algae growing from the lower foreshore down. They generally come under the jurisdiction of Crown Estates Scotland (CES) or local landowners. CES also owns the seabed 12 nautical miles beyond the foreshore. The paper on the government’s website ‘Legislative and Regulatory Control of Wild Seaweed Harvesting and Seaweed Cultivation at Sea’ section A.2.4 notes ‘collection or foraging of small quantitates of seaweed for personal use does not require a licence, although CES recommend that the environmental sensitivities of collection from the wild are considered appropriately.’
  • All wild foods foraged for commercial purposes or financial gain require permission from the relevant landowner (and NatureScot where applicable) – licences are required for certain operations ie seaweed harvesting.
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Being Responsible

Essentially when we reconnect with the plants and wildlife and learn about the species we can eat or utilise it is also a time to think about what we can do to improve our environment and the spectrum of species that live here. According to NatureScot we have only 4% left of our native woodland. Humankind has stripped the land we know over thousands of years. It looks wild but it really isn’t. Once we settled and started to farm so the trees were cut down and the land cleared for agriculture and grazing. Species and plants have been lost forever. It is easy to forget what man has destroyed here when we despair at what is happening in the Amazon or Indonesia. So when we forage it needs to be done with care for the wildlife and landscape, with an aim to improve and increase those wild spaces, with conservation in mind. We are very fortunate in Argyll to have some carefully protected Atlantic temperate rainforest with ancient oak, hazel and rowan supporting a wide variety of plants, fungi, lichens and mosses that support a host of insects and animals.

We do need to seek permission for these special places, but there are also plenty of common species that can be found all over Argyll so it is not hard to find a tasty snack. Gorse flowers to sprinkle in a sponge, daisies and sorrel in a salad, wild green shoots to make pestos and pakora, meadowsweet to make champagne, blaeberries to make ice cream… And the peace and joy that can come with spending time in nature and getting to know your plants and wildlife is both cathartic and incredibly good for your own wellbeing. And if you happen on enough ceps to make a yummy feast, then lucky you!

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Some Useful Notes

Although we only briefly cover access here it is important to note that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 established ‘statutory rights of responsible access on and over most land, including inland water, for the purpose of open air recreation’ within the framework of the Scottish Outdoor Access Code which essentially allows for a range of outdoor and educational activities as long as they are undertaken RESPONSIBLY.

We have not covered shellfish, crustaceans, fishing or hunting. There are many Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and the special nature of the Argyll Hope Spot and the area’s rivers and lochs means you should seek permission from the relevant landowner or angling club and advice/permission from NatureScot in areas that are protected where there are likely to be restrictions in place. Note there are also quotas re landing crustaceans for personal use.

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