How much is enough? Sustainable foraging and ethical harvesting guidelines

Foraging is all about sustainability.

The relationship between plants and people.

How we engage with the natural world without violating it.

Here are my foraging guidelines so you can become a responsible and sustainable forager.

Try and harvest away from other humans. Some people think picking any wildflower is illegal. It isn’t. This minimises the possibility for potential confrontation. Read – Foraging and the Law.

Foraging changes the ecological balance of a bioregion. A bioregion is:

“…a land and water territory whose limits are defined not by political boundaries, but by the geographical limits of human communities and ecological systems.” REF

The usual cliches often spouted for how much to forage goes something like this: “Harvest between 30% to 50% of a plant community”.

My advice is to only gather what you will use today and maybe tomorrow. The Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland recommend one in twenty (5%) as the best ratio to go by. Read their guidelines here.

This leaves most of the plant stand (community) for other non-humans and has a minimal impact on the ecosystem. 

If you go over this, you are gathering from plant communities that are too small.

Every plant is different in how much harvesting it can tolerate.

Some thrive when harvested heavily. Others will be impacted and might decline.

It’s a long journey down the Green Path and one which requires deep attention to how your harvesting protocols impact your local landbase. 

Each plant and ecosystem is unique.

  • Only harvest perennials. Picking them does not usually threaten their survival.
  • NEVER harvest endangered, rare or threatened species. NEVER NEVER NEVER!
  • REMEMBER: A plant might be recorded as scarce or rare in one county yet grow in abundance in another. Know the local status of a plant. 
  • Contact a local botany group and go through your list of plants with someone there.
  • Learn the flora in your county. See this as a journey, an exciting game. Become a plant explorer.

Foraging Is Stewardship. What Does That Mean To You?

Taking care of the earth means the earth will take care of you. Break that trust and relationship and the relationship will end and most likely the human species. The earth is far bigger than you human! 

Although I teach the power of smell to identify plants. Do not use it exclusively for identification.

Use all your senses – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste (only use taste when you are 100% CERTAIN THE PLANT IS EDIBLE. Ignore this rule under penalty of death.

When identifying Umbellifers (carrot family) botanists use the characteristics of the seed to identify species in this family. 

The flowers very often are not enough to make an identification with 100% certainty. It is often very difficult to tell the species apart from one another.

Beginners should never try and ID members of the carrot family without personal guidance. 

I have had numerous ‘distress calls’ from anxious beginners who wandered into uncharted territory and outside their skillset after they ate what they thought was the correct plant. And I know of many who have ended up in hospital after seriously poisoning themselves.

I am reminded of a man who ate Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and while being airlifted to the hospital his heart stopped and for a moment he died. Luckily for him, he was resuscitated.

You have been warned. Nature weeds out stupid people!

Never eat any plant that you do not have a positive ID for. A positive ID means you are absolutely certain you have the correct plant.

Further Reading


  1. I love this article. I forage a bit and I’m doing a herbalism course and I often worry about taking too much. I totally agree with your sentiments that it is the people who love the plants and use the plants who have vested interest in looking after them, they feel part of nature, whilst some farming practices can elicit tokenism at best and total destruction at worst. Thank you for this artice.

  2. I completely agree with this – it’s much easier to love what you know, and learning to identify plants opens up the green wall to reveal delightful new friends. Where we pay close attention – whether because we would like to eat it, or just to enjoy the growing, living world – we can actually see much more than we ever thought was there

  3. Thank you for this…..its a message worth sharing again and again. There are scavengers out there and the consumptive lifestyles followed by many people are sometimes apparent with new foragers.
    Education is the way………

  4. Great article thank you and I wish the approximate ratios and concept of taking only what you need were more widely known. During lock down I’ve been dismayed to see those new to foraging photographing huge ‘harvests’ and ‘batch cooking’ with them rather than just taking what they need. While it’s been great to see more and more people waking up to the bounty around them some are approaching it with a consumerist mindset and the two don’t blend well I fear.

  5. Very good food for thought Robin. Nearly all of this resonates with my foraging practice, although each particular plant encounter has its own subtle nuances.
    It is interesting, as I found myself triggered and irritated by this phrase in your piece: “The usual cliches often spouted for how much to forage…..” At first, I felt it was a bit agressive, I-know-betterish, but actually it is very well expressed, and a good springboad for reflection. Cliches spouted, although sometimes true and useful, point to the possibility of using dead and unalive phrases that dont live inside, dont resonate deeply and animate as the good and wise advice of a close friend might do so.
    For me, there is no presciptive figure or percentage to follow with regard to foraging. There is only that intuition that comes in relation to being with each plant. It is very easily felt, and will tell you imediately how much is appropriate (or not) to forage. It is also very easy to override, to get in your head, and convince yourself you are not overriding it!

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