Q&A discussing foraging in Scotland with expert forager and herbalist Monica Wilde from West Lothian.
Foraging epitomises green living. It is sustainable and local. When you are foraging in Scotland you know exactly where your food is coming from, there is no packaging involved, and it´s completely free. It´s also a great excuse for a walk. Wild edibles are fresh and healthy, packed full of vitamins and minerals and collecting them is a brilliant way to connect with nature and better understand our food.
Foraging in Scotland is seeing a revival in recent years with more and more people getting out and about hunting for food. We would urge everyone to give it a try. But don´t shoot straight off into the countryside and start picking anything and everything willy-nilly. Get yourself a good guide book or, better still, take a course with an experienced forager who will be able to steer you in the right direction.
Monica Wilde would be an ideal choice of foraging tutor and she has kindly provided us with a nice introduction to foraging in Scotland via the Q&A below. Monica is a research herbalist and ethnobotanist. She is owner and director of Scotland´s oldest (est 1860) herbalist company, Napiers, which has clinics in Edinburgh and Glasgow. She lives in West Lothian in a self-built wooden house on 4 wild acres and teaches foraging courses all over Scotland.
It was a great privilege to do this Q&A with Monica. You can get in touch with Monica via her website. She would love to hear from you!
Q.When and why did you first start getting into foraging?
A. I started foraging as a child. First in Kenya where I grew up with my Kikuyu neighbours. Then, when I was nine, I was sent to a boarding school in Sussex and a friend’s grandmother would take me out for walks and tell me all about the plants. I was hooked from a young age!
Q. Is Scotland a good place for foraging?
A. Scotland is an excellent place for foraging. We have a long Spring, cool waters for excellent seaweeds and amazing forests full of delicious fungi. We also have the Right to Roam which gives us access to some incredible countryside.
Q. Is it legal to take wild edibles from anywhere apart from, of course, private land such as gardens or fields?
A. It is legal to forage for your personal use anywhere that you have the right to roam but you must not uproot any plants without the landowner’s permission. But do be considerate. Don’t be selfish and always be thoughtful about your impact on the plant’s sustainability, the other life forms that depend on it, and your neighbours who might also enjoy the wild harvest. Commercial foraging in Scotland requires permission.
Q. Do you have to get out into the countryside to forage or can you successfully forage in the city?
A. You can forage in cities as well as there are many green spaces from small vacant building sites to city centre parks. There is often not as much choice in native species but many garden plants also escape and can be eaten. Do wash city produce well and avoid roots or fungi in polluted areas as they tend to hold minerals and toxins whereas leaves generally don’t.
Q. Why do you think so few people these days go out and forage in Scotland?
A. I think far more people do forage wild edibles than say ten years ago. In the last century people thought that convenience shopping was everything and lost interest in wild and natural foods. Now people are realising that losing touch with nature has a price. People are more aware about food, nutrition, being outdoors and want to regain lost skills and recapture a connection with nature.
Q. Can you sum up why you believe more people should be foraging in Scotland or at least eating more local wild edibles.
A. Because they are packed full of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and get you outside. It is also hugely satisfying and fun looking for your own wild food.
Q. What would you recommend as a plan of action for a foraging newbie who is keen to get out and about collecting wild edibles in Scotland?
A. Get a range of good field identification books but above all go on a course. It is hard to learn smell, taste, scale and texture from a book but very easy when someone shows you. Learn one new species a week and by the end of two years you’ll know a hundred new species!
Q. How dangerous is foraging? Can we safely head off into the countryside with a guidebook to wild edibles and a carrier bag? Or are we liable to poison ourselves?
A. I have one simple rule. Never put anything in your mouth unless you are 100% sure that you have identified it correctly. There are some poisonous plants and fungi that can harm you, even kill you, but there are many, many more that don’t . If you are good at botany, or choose simple plants (dandelion, nettle, brambles), then a guide book may be enough. But if you’re not sure, go out with someone who has experience until you are sure of each species.
Q. Which are the best and worst times of the year for foraging in Scotland?
A. That so depends on what you are picking. My favourite seasons are the long Spring (Feb-June) and the Autumn (Aug-Oct) as there is particular abundance at these times but I pick during the winter as well. There is never nothing!
Q. Do you have any particular favourites of the wild edibles you forage? Maybe a few things that are readily available in Scotland and are particularly tasty or nutritious?
A. That’s a hard question as I love so many of them and eat somewhere between 200-300 species. (Global records show that humans have foraged for 7000 species). I also love different things at different times of the year. In December its a joy to find velvet shanks on a tree, in the Spring I love fried hogweed shoots or a fresh wild greens salad, in the autumn nothing beats the bolete mushrooms.
Q. How much of your daily diet comes from wild edibles you forage?
A. Depends on the season. In the winter only 10-20%. At other times of the year up to 99% (never quite 100% if you count olive oil!).
Q. Do you manage to resist the pull of the big supermarkets?
A. As much as possible. As well as foraging I have a vegetable garden and get a weekly organic fruit box. I get wild game where possible from people who shoot and sometimes buy meat directly from farmers. I try to only go to a supermarket once a month and it’s not usually for much food but loo rolls, Ecover detergent, etc. We make as much as we can at home from beer to bread to cheese.
Q. Could a foraging expert such as yourself sustain a healthy daily diet eating exclusively foraged foods in Scotland?
A. I could but it’s a full-time job, hard albeit rewarding work, and one best shared with a few like-minded people. There are criteria though. You’d need plenty of access to a lot of land as you need to move through different habitats during the year, the rights to harvest roots as well as game, and lots of time to gather and preserve foods for the winter months.
Q. Do you agree that humans are naturally and optimally herbivorous rather than omnivorous, when comparing us to true carnivores and considering factors such as our teeth, jaws, upright posture, speed, nails, stomach acidity, intestinal tracts and our aversion to killing animals with our bare hands and eating them raw and our inability to do so even if we wanted without weapons or traps?
A. No I don’t agree. I do believe we are omnivorous. It would be almost impossible to survive without eating meat if the clock stopped and we went back more than 20,000 years (pre-farming). Monkeys are mainly vegetarian but we developed because earlier Homo species humans harnessed fire and cooking about 200,000 years ago which gave us the ability to eat a huge range of foods. This gave us the ability to colonise all the areas of the world or we’d still be confined to the tropics spending most of our days eating a lot of leaves. Our bodies evolved accordingly. However, saying that, I don’t think the Paleo diet is right. My observations of seasonal availability and all my research into nutrition point to an ideal diet that is 75-85% vegetables at most times of the year but it varies enormously with the seasons. But this is a long discussion and one I am currently writing a book about.
Thanks again to Monica Wilde for her time and the words of wisdom she has shared with us here today. If you fancy speaking more with Monica about foraging in Scotland you can visit Monica’s website.