Enjoy the bounty of summer without breaking the law

With Elmhirst Parker Solicitors, Barnsley

There’s an old saying that the only things that are truly free in this world are blackberries. Summer is the time for heading out into the countryside and (as long as you know what you’re doing) foraging for free wild goodies like juicy blackberries, wild mushrooms, and plants.

It’s tempting to pick a bunch of wildflowers to take home with you, or scoop up some pebbles from the beach, but what are the laws on foraging? And what should you be aware of before you head off into the woods today?

Getting the landowner’s permission

Nobody is going to get too upset over you picking a pound or two of blackberries from a hedgerow, as long as you don’t damage it in the process. Bear in mind that some hedgerows, particularly those that are very old or have rare species of plants living in them, are protected and should therefore be left well alone.

It often seems to be the case that the tastiest treats, like gourmet mushrooms, are in the most inaccessible spots, often on private land. While the ‘Right to Roam’ gives the public a certain amount of freedom when it comes to accessing footpaths and trails across private land, that does not give you the right to go ‘off-track’ and start trespassing on private land in search of truffles.

It also depends on just how much foraging you’re intending to do. The Theft Act 1978 means that it’s against the law to dig up or damage any plant you find on private land for commercial purposes, without the full permission of the landowner. So, if you’re planning to open an exclusive restaurant and want to dig up truffles or fungi for your own wild ingredients, you better make sure you have permission first.

NNR and SSSI sites

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 makes it illegal to forage for wild plants on a Site of Special Scientific Interest or National Nature Reserve. This is because these areas are very delicate and protected to ensure rare species survive without having their habitat damaged. If you are in a reserve, keep your foraging bags in your pockets and leave the berries for the birds.

The sea’s bounty – seaweed foraging

If you’re down by the coast this summer, there’s a plentiful supply of one of the world’s most nutritious plants on offer – seaweed. The UK’s coastline is a haven for seaweed, with around 20 edible varieties on offer. But how much can you take?

Beaches are generally owned either by the crown or local authorities (and in some cases, private landlords), so again you’ll need to be careful you don’t start scooping up bucketfuls for that new fish restaurant you’re opening, without permission. Bear in mind, too, that not every beach has a good water quality standard, so there are some you may want to avoid. As with every other type of edible plant, taking a little should be fine and shouldn’t land you in hot water.

Wild plants

It may be tempting to pick an armful of wildflowers, but before you do, make sure you’re not breaking the law. Rare flowers such as orchids and even some very humble looking flowers are incredibly scarce and endangered, and therefore protected by law. Picking them could land you with a fine and a criminal record. Appreciate them, take photos of them, but leave them for others to enjoy.

Pebbles? Really?

Yes, even taking pebbles from a beach can land you in trouble. There have been several cases of people being prosecuted for taking pebbles from certain beaches, and even picking up a couple to paint when you get back home could mean you end up with a fine.

If you’re at the beach, look out for signs that will tell you if it’s illegal to remove stones. If you want pebbles for your garden water feature, the best way to avoid getting into trouble with the local by-laws is to buy them from a garden centre, rather than taking them from the beach.

The golden rule is if you’re not sure, leave it alone. If you do get into trouble for trespassing on private land or foraging without the landowner’s permission, talk to a solicitor who specialises in trespass litigation.

*This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.