Foraging and the law as it applies to England and Wales (as far as I can comprehend…)
The legality of foraging is often a grey area, because as we know, thousands upon thousands of acts of parliament legislate against our activities in most spheres of our existence under the present rule of statute law. For people collecting wild plants, the legal position is in practice further complicated due to the nature of private land ownerships and the question of permission.
Aside from the Theft Act 1978, there are two other specific pieces of legislation which affect people who visit and enjoy our countryside. These are the Countryside and rights of way Act 2000 (CROW) and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (WCA) http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-1377
CROW excludes any collecting of plants, whilst the WCA protects certain species, making it illegal to remove any part of them. Removing plants from sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and other nature reserves is illegal without permission from the landowner and the quango (quasi-autonomous-non-governmental-organisation) that looks after SSSI – ‘Natural England’. Permission is not likely to be granted on these lands.
With regards the Theft Act 1978:
Without seeking permission from a landowner to be on their land you will be committing trespass, which currently still comes under civil law rather than criminal law. Foraging for personal use on private land is fine under our common law, having legal precedent on much land. If you are collecting plants for commercial purposes on private land, the law states that you must always ask the permission of the landowner before removing plant parts. Failure to do so is theft.
Furthermore, numerous but separate local by-laws can contribute to the overall picture. For instance, the National trust have bye-laws that state that “no tree, plant, fungi, seeds, moss, or other vegetation can be picked or removed from trust property”.
Almost all roads and country lanes, their immediate verges, and vegetation are theoretically and legally the responsibility of the Highways agency and the local authorities. Most pavements in towns and cities similarly belong to local council or other authorities. So, dandelions growing on these spots will technically belong to the council / authority. Yet the reality here is that probability of a letter-of-the-law prosecution resulting from spontaneous collecting out of pavement cracks or hedges by country lanes, is very, very small.
Aside from laws, there are moral responsibilities to embrace in order to sustainably harvest. In a nutshell, do not strip any organism or area of its resources. We are but one animal dependent on our environment.
Through responsible foraging we can easily actively maintain or increase our local wildlife resources. Mankind has always helped the dispersal and colonising of plant life, as other animals do. A clue to our role is in the term just given. Mankind. With an ever-increasing awareness of our local and global ecologies, we can constantly adapt our actions to promote regeneration and continuation of plant life and all that revolves around it.