Permaculture & Foraging
Foraging, both for edible food supplements and medicinal herbs, is becoming a familiar part of many Permaculture Design Courses these days. At the 2010 Permaculture Uk Convergence, Pat Bowcock, leading West Country Permaculturist and forager, who leads dedicated courses on the subject, demonstrated the bounty of a neglected patch of ground to a rapt audience. The nutritional value of nettles is, for example, about 50 times greater than any domestic crop of ‘greens’. Nature, it seems, packs a powerful punch in small parcels.
Concurrent with this growing interest in the wilderness larder is the establishment of ‘bushcraft’ course providers. One such Welsh expert in this field is Pete Williams from Llanidloes, who makes the point that learning ancient craft and foraging skills is exciting and brings people close to nature - developing an understanding of ecosystems. It also teaches the student how to recognise potential resources of all kinds, and ‘obtain a yield’.
So we asked Pete to write a very personal perspective for us on how, for him, foraging, like Permaculture, is really a mindset, based on 3 compatible principles, which he defines as Efficiency, Effectiveness and Opportunity.
Foraging – a sustainable lifestyle choice
by Pete Williams of Red Dragon Bushcraft
I don’t forage from the hedgerows nearly as much as I should. Many times I pass by the opportunity to gather the hedgerow harvest and risk being labelled as one of the population who turns up their nose and says “Yuk!” when offered a blackberry fresh from the stem! There are plenty of fruits, nuts and other wild edible plants that I recognise, but I use the excuse of a busy schedule to hurry on by, leaving the prize to our wild cousins.
However, the idea of foraging for simple wild foods is still alive and thriving amongst the many folk today, collecting blackberries, hazelnuts and even nettles for a springtime hearty soup, are still much in evidence here in Mid Wales. I have a sneaking suspicion that many readers will be significantly more accomplished in this field than I am. So why am I writing for you about foraging? Perhaps it is because I look at things from a slightly different perspective. I have fallen head over heels into the hobby called “Bushcrafting”. Something that, even to seasoned practitioners, can be very difficult to describe to another person who asks “What do you do?”
Bushcrafters are sometimes viewed as pseudo-military survivalists and just as often as tree hugging new age hippies. Phrases such as “Making yourself comfortable in the wild” or Living in tune with the natural cycle” are often put forward as the ethos of what a Bushcrafter does.
So this article will, I hope, go a little way to widening the scope of what you might view as traditional ‘Foraging’, and I would like, eventually, to steer the discussion away from the ‘food only’ viewpoint.
To stick with food for my first example: I used regularly to drive between Mid Wales and the Home Counties, and at certain times of the year, the potato fields around Hereford and Leominster would be harvested as crops became ripe. The farmers would drive huge trailers of potatoes from the fields to the packing sheds, and in a rush to get the crop ‘in’ would drive quite quickly back and forth. The resulting rough ride would spill occasional spuds into the road or verge where they would be considered ‘waste’ to the business. With a little free time in hand, one could park up and spend a few minutes stretching one’s legs and continue the drive with a few kilos of fresh produce – even though some of it might be a little road-damaged. This might easily be seen as bin-raiding or scavenging, but when viewed as ‘locating and collecting a food source that might otherwise go to waste’ can also be viewed as foraging!
The act of foraging is one that has to come between other skills such as resource identification, and then later, the preparation or processing of the foraged material. So we find that while we want to extend our knowledge about foraging, other skills have to be learnt in conjunction to ensure that our ability to make the best use of resources is maintained. I also believe there is great merit in making up a foraging calendar for your locality as there can be significant regional variation in the fruiting times of all sorts of wild produce. Also worthy of noting are the locations and yields of various resources so that greater planning can go into harvesting the crop to come. However, one should always aim to leave a reasonable proportion of every crop to perpetuate the healthy populations of the harvest that you take and to sustain the resident wildlife.
There are many mantras that Bushcrafters tend to abide by, but one that keeps cropping up is Efficiency, Effectiveness & Opportunity - meaning that we should aim to be Efficient in daily tasks ,and Effective in what we set out to achieve, and that we should take every Opportunity that crosses our path.
When you consider these things, they may seem self-evident, but I feel that many people miss out on the type of foraging that I employ. I seem to have a perpetual list of on-going projects! They range from vehicle maintenance to craft projects, and ‘things’ I want to make. And so I set about my daily routine of children/home/meals etc, but with a background of other stuff bubbling close to the surface of my consciousness – I am constantly on the lookout for materials and skills that will go some way to achieving the results I want. Sometimes a project takes months to come to fruition and sometimes only a few hours. There are even times when the resource material will precede and trigger the project. Maybe it is because, in a former life, I was a trained engineer, skilled in repairing and making-do, that I now see many problems from an ‘engineering’ viewpoint.
I have become the constant inquisitor - nosing into what is going on, asking myself how I can adapt that process to my situation, how can those materials be used in a different way to further my needs, and what resources do I need to move my project ahead.
Allow me to take a view into the past: I have an old pair of trousers - tough camouflage items from another country’s armed forces, but rugged and warm during our cold winters. Over the years as I passed into middle-age, my waistline expanded such that the once-favourite garment would barely fit, but still had plenty of life left in it. The trousers were relegated to the back of the wardrobe and almost forgotten when, by chance, I was ambling through my local town. There on a hanger outside a charity shop was a pair of shorts in the same material: immediately a plan was hatched to buy the shorts and dismantle them, using the fabric to modify the trousers that were once worn regularly. That pair of shorts yielded much more than the original idea of ‘simple modification’, and lent themselves to adapting a hat of similar material - with still some pieces left over for future repairs and other small projects.
Another time I attended a ‘Fungi Foray’ around Elan Village, with my young daughter. The event was led by Ray Woods, an eminent and well known personality, whose knowledge of fungi and its place in the natural order is legendary. The foray began at the visitor centre and followed a slow loop around the back of the village and local ancient woodland, returning to the centre some hours later. The level of knowledge being shared was huge, including many topics which left me floundering way out of my depth.
It was quite late in the tour when I got my chance to speak to Ray, with a question on whether a fungus would make suitable tinder for fire-lighting. The response I got was one of great interest as he was possibly tiring of questions on edibility, and we spent a good half hour discussing a number of points before I came away having had, what I considered, some very high quality one-on-one time. In return I was able to demonstrate to him the ignition of some ‘amadou’ (prepared Horses Hoof Fungus - Fomes Fomentaria), which proved both to burn hot and be difficult to extinguish short of plunging the piece into water. We each came away from the foray with more information than we had bargained on getting.
I was once looking out for a bag that I could use to carry some essentials in and that I could use whilst doing traditional foraging. A trip to a local recycling yard yielded an old, top-quality leather satchel, and it became apparent that, if I took the thing apart, it could be sewn back together to make two separate bags of different sizes. One became a document case and the other, larger piece, now regularly accompanies me on my hikes and walks, containing the necessaries to make a hot brew, or some field guides and a notebook. Not only did I make two bags, but the exercise led me into working with leather, and this has meant that I was able to apply those new skills and principles to making leather knife sheaths and axe masks for a fraction of their commercial cost.
So, my message here is to urge the reader to be on the look-out, not only for edible hedgerow harvests, but for resource materials, skills, and tricks of the trade… as well as the traditional rural fare.
To me it is all foraging - finding things that go to enhancing your life experience.
Red Dragon Bushcraft
Pete Williams’ school in Mid Wales, Red Dragon Bushcraft, teaches, demonstrates and perpetuates the skills of the outdoorsman, often called “Bushcraft”, sometimes known as survival techniques, wilderness crafts or primitive skills. These skills, crafts and techniques were perfected by our earliest ancestors and remain a viable fallback option even now. Pete endeavours to show, that with a subtle change of mindset and the clever employment of some straightforward techniques, a person can live quite comfortably from the natural environment, reducing their carbon footprint and enjoying a greener lifestyle. Find out more at: