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Wales, United Kingdom
In autumn 2010, my husband Ian and I both quit our jobs, sold our house and left the flatlands of the east for the mountains of Wales. Our goal is to create a more self-sufficient lifestyle in a place we actually like living. Whilst Ian will continue to earn some money as a freelancer, my part of the project is to reduce how much we spend by growing and making as much of what we need as possible. The purpose of this blog is to keep friends updated with how the grand project is progressing, but all are welcome here. If you're not a friend already, well perhaps you might become one.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Foraging vs. gardening, and our place in nature

A discussion on a facebook foraging group the other day has prompted me to write about something that I've been thinking about for some time, now. The discussion started with,

Not to open a can of worms as it were, but I thought this site was to help promote the sustainable collecting of wild produce, as well as edible plant identification. By sustainable I mean taking enough for us humans to enjoy as a treat but leaving enough for wildlife to eat as an essential to survive winter. Some of the posts though show such large quantities being collected which will quite possibly impact on wildlife survival, including birds, squirrels, mice, voles etc. Do we humans always have to be greedy at the expense of other creatures?
and towards the end included suggestions about heating up the can of worms on a bonfire, but being sure to leave some worms in the can for the blackbirds, and whether it's best for a blackbird to learn to use a can opener, or simply train a human to do it as and when required.

Chestnuts. Should I leave these for the woodland animals?

While I'm all for respecting and supporting wildlife, I have several problems with this position (the original post, not teaching blackbirds to use can openers). Firstly, while this point of view is common amongst foragers, it's very rare amongst gardeners. It may just be that there are two groups of people with very different standards, but I suspect that the concept of ownership has a lot to do with it. In my garden, where I have toiled and nurtured, the plants are mine and I'm entitled to harvest all of them, with no regard to what the wildlife might want. Indeed, gardeners go to great lengths to protect their crops from being eaten by other animals, and it's very rare to hear any disapproval of this behaviour.

Squash. How about these? Should I have left these too?

It's not just the inconsistency that bothers me; this highlights what the alternative to foraging is. Gardening is akin to farming: Deliberate cultivation of crops on land designated as being for that purpose. One viewpoint expressed in the facebook debate was that we don't need to forage if we can afford to buy our food from shops, implying that this is the default, neutral position.

Let's think about that, shall we? Food bought from shops is farmed, almost universally. There's a spectrum of farming practices, but they all involve identifying pieces of land as farmland and making efforts to keep wildlife from eating the crops on that land. People may debate the methods used, but does anyone say to a farmer, You must leave those caterpillars alone, they have as much right to the cabbages as you do!? Actually, it's possible that some people might say this, but I think you'll agree that this is an extreme point of view. It's generally accepted that farming involves keeping as much of the crop as possible for humans, not caterpillars.

If the default, neutral position involves, at the very least, displacing wildlife, what then of foraging? Taking wild food certainly deprives other animals of it, but otherwise doesn't disturb them much, unlike farming. Foraging, then, surely has a lower impact on wildlife than farming.

The next question has to be whether foraged food supplements or replaces farmed food. In other words, do we eat just the same amount of farmed food when we forage, or do we eat less? The answer to this is not straightforward. One possibility is all the food that is necessary for survival and good nutrition comes from farmed or home-grown sources. In this scenario, any foraged food is additional to this, treats and luxuries that we simply wouldn't have if we didn't forage.

Another possibility is that when we forage, we reduce the amount of food we eat from other sources. Even if the type of food we forage ends up as luxuries, for example sloe gin, we would have bought some equivalent luxury, perhaps another liqueur, if we didn't have the foraged food. This second possibility also covers cases where foraged food replaces more essential food items, such as foraged nettles or fat hen substituting for spinach or spring greens.

If the first possibility was mainly the true situation, then foraging really would be an additional impact on wildlife. There would be a simple choice between taking wild food and not taking it. However, I think the second possibility is much more likely to be true. We do not add to our diet with foraged food, we replace some of the farmed food with wild.

The person who started the recent debate, who is far from alone in this view, considers wild food to be treats for humans, but essential for wild animals. Even for those whose foraged food is only sloe gin or blackberry and apple crumble, which are certainly treats, I think this misses the point if - as I suspect is usually the case - these treats are substitutes for alternative treats. Even with treats, foraging is an alternative to farming, not additional to it.

What really bugs me about this point of view, though, was expressed by another member of the facebook discussion. It reflects a view of human beings as separate from the natural world. The bounties nature world are not for us, they are for wild animals. We have other sources of food, other than what we might forage.

This treats the farms where our food is grown as being apart from nature; as having no impact on it. Of course, people who express this view are not thinking about the farms, but that's part of the problem. When you think about it, farmland obviously has a huge impact on wildlife. Everything we do interacts with nature, because we are part of nature. Just like all the other wild animals, we have to eat, and that food has to grow somewhere.

From the point of view of being one animal amongst many, and needing to feed myself as much as any other animal does, I feel that I have as much right to nature's bounty as the next animal, especially when the next animal happens to be a slug.

One mushroom - a cep, I believe - that I didn't get to first.


  1. Gosh, such a tricky subject - I don't know where I stand. It does feel like we already have such an unfair advantage over nature (being able to drive to multiple foraging sites in a day being one!) already. But then I take your point - if we reduced the farming destruction, there would be more than enough forage to go around. Hmm, one to ponder but a great post, thanks.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It's true that we have something of a competitive edge against other animals ;-)

  2. Wow... that sounds like a fascinating discussion. I tend to agree with your point of view. Probably the single most destructive thing we humans do (in terms of its impact on wildlife) is farming. It's pretty much a systematic destruction of wildlife habitat - taking away not only food, but living space from animals.

    In fact, CatMan and I were just having an interesting discussion about the demise of the American bison. It all started because somehow in conversation the city of Buffalo, NY got mentioned, and I remarked that it was an odd name because there aren't any buffalo for thousands of miles from upstate NY. Of course, as we discovered with some research, that wasn't always true.

    I dunno... perhaps it's easy to forget that our farmland was once wild if you live in a place that's had it for a long time. But if you ever drive across the US and see mile upon mile of farms, which were all open prairie just a few hundred years ago, it's hard to not think about what used to live there.

    1. That's an interesting comparison about farmland. Closely grazed hillsides and fields of golden wheat are the British image of 'countryside' which is pretty much synonymous with 'nature' in most people's minds. In most areas of the country, we'd be hard pushed to tell you what was there before farming.

  3. My first reaction was something along the lines of 'us greedy humans tend to take everything we can, we should leave stuff for the animals and birds to eat'.

    Then I actually thought about my blackberry picking experiences this autumn and the fact that many of the berries were out of reach for us- leaving plenty on the bushes for the birds/mice/squirrels etc.

    On the 'being separate from nature' thing- I'm sure I've seen the idea put across on programmes and books about prehistoric humans that when humans started to farm they started to view themselves as separate from nature- keeping wild animals and nature out of the fields and away from livestock, rather than seeing themselves as a part of nature and as another animal.
    (I'm not sure if this view is too simplistic/romantic, but I think it's interesting).

    1. Indeed, 'everything we can take' very often leaves plenty for other animals!

      That's an interesting thought about farming introducing the idea of separation from nature. I can't imagine what sort of evidence might support the historical claim, but it certainly makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

    2. I'm not sure how much evidence there is- possibly pre-farming cave art that suggests people viewed themselves as animals/similar to animals rather than separate/ruling over nature.
      It might also be based on the beliefs/world view of people today who predominantly hunt and gather rather than farm.

    3. I suppose I meant that I can't imagine how you'd get at people's ideas of their relationship with nature from things like cave paintings, but actually talking to people who still live that way now would probably yield much better information. I hadn't thought of that.


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