Less Noise, More Green: The frustrations of foraging Rhode Island style

Monday, August 19, 2013

The frustrations of foraging Rhode Island style

Black currants grow wild in the British countryside

I don’t often think about the differences between my two countries, the UK and the USA, but this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of foraging for food on public land. This is one area where policies are very different and I’ve been having a hard time wrapping my head around them.

I grew up in a rural part of the UK and foraging for hedgerow fruit and berries was a part of my childhood. Every autumn we would take containers down to the river and pick buckets of blackberries.  People picked sloes and elderberries for jam and wine. Public rights of way run through many a farmer’s field. You respect the land, close the gate and stick to the path. There is an understanding. Public means for everyone so when picking you don’t take it all, you leave more than you take.

I have vivid memories of visiting a forested hill side in the spring because the bluebells had arrived. A vast sea of blue beneath dappled light, filtered through the trees. It was the most magical thing I’d ever seen. We only picked a few. It was common sense.

The idea of Public Land in the UK goes back to shared village land, usually the village green, where sheep could graze, and wooded areas for pigs to forage and tenants could find wood for the fire and nuts and berries for the table.  It was a right. In the UK, foraging is protected by law. The Theft Act 1968, for England and Wales, states that:

"A person who picks mushrooms growing wild on any land, or who picks flowers, fruit or foliage from a plant growing wild on any land, does not (although not in possession of the land) steal what he picks, unless he does it for reward or for sale or other commercial purpose."

You can pick for home use, not to sell. We’re talking about hedgerows, forests, public land. Taking crops from farm land or apples from your neighbor’s tree is stealing. Local bye laws can prevent foraging, but by law notices must be posted informing the public. National Trust properties and government nature conservancies might prohibit, but rarely fine, as long as only small amounts are taken.

It is illegal to grow black currants in Rhode Island. I went to a Connecticut to pick these.

Rhode Island has its own set of laws concerning foraging. It is against the law to forage on public land, period. Rhode Island has 46,000 acres of public land and every single plant on that land is protected. The same goes for Land Trusts and Audubon Society preserves. Want to pick anything on land that does not belong to you? You need written permission from the owner. I live in a suburb in Rhode Island. My property does not contain acres of natural habitat on which to forage. I’m out of luck, I guess.

Rhode Island has what’s known as the Christmas Greens Law which protects a list of trees and plants commonly used to make Christmas decorations. Many of these plants were in danger because of over harvesting and needed protecting. Not on your land? You can’t take any.  

Huckleberries growing wild on protected RI land. It is illegal to pick them. This photo was taken by my friend and fellow Master Gardener, Kathy Schnabel, who is a talented photographer. On the day we went on this RINHS walk the battery in my camera was dead. Good thing Kathy is always prepared!

I recently went on a walk with the Rhode Island Natural History Society at a public preserve. The purpose of the walk was seed collecting of native plants for cleaning and propagating.  Fascinating stuff! Walking on to the preserve we were met with vast swaths of huckleberry bushes, all in fruit!  Dotted amongst them were high and low bush blueberries and dewberry plants covered the ground.  The RINHS has permission to take berries for the purpose of seed collecting. The method is to take samples from many specimens and no more than twenty percent of the total number of seeds.

High and Low bush blueberries grow wild in Rhode Island but unless they are on your land you will have to pick your own at a farm or go to the supermarket.

It seems such a shame to me that these berries are not available for the public. I understand that the birds and other animals will eat some but most will rot and fall to the ground.  Does the RI government have such little faith in the public? Will such rampant abuse happen that species will be endangered and eco systems destroyed?  Maybe the need to write the Greens Law is the answer to that question. Abuse, of course happens in the UK and the bluebell, for example, is now protected.

Thornless blackberries growing in my yard.

In response to the lack of legal foraging opportunities, I have planted blackberries in my garden and plan to add elderberries to the front of the house next spring.  I suppose the reason I’m struggling with this issue is the fundamental difference in relationship in this state between the public and the land. I keep asking the same question about where can I forage because I can’t absorb the answer: nowhere.

A mix of thornless and thorny blackberrries growing along my fence. My neighbos will be in a surprise next year as these plants like to spread. Hope they like blackberries.

The state issues permits for legally taking game and fish from state land (hunting). Maybe a permit for foraging is a way to control and monitor the responsible harvesting of berries and other edibles from public land. In the meantime, I’m always on the lookout for people with lots of land and little interest in their edible plants! There are nonprofit organizations who will harvest unwanted fruits and nuts from private property to donate to food banks. I think this is a great idea. Anyone know of such a group in R.I.?

What are the rules for foraging where you live?­­­­­­­­

See you in the garden,


  1. Interesting Facts! Permit for foraging, good idea!

  2. DEM won't let you pick stuff on state land? There is a law? ...never heard of it. Ridiculous, anyway, if it exists, and unenforceable. I've picked blueberries all my life in RI on public and private, un-posted land. Never had anyone bother me. I have spots on DEM land where I, and others with experience, pick them by the gallon. "Foraging" is not a new activity, but very traditional, at least among us who grew up in the countryside. I don't mushroom, but I know several people who do. Same experience with them.

    1. Hello, can anyone share where they have seen or foraged for berries in Rhode Island?

    2. Go to wilderness next to Showcase Cinemas parking lot---far end of the lot where the trucks usually park during the night and the morning
      1200 Quaker Ln, Warwick, RI 02886

  3. My wife and I have been inspired by a couple of Netflix documentaries of chefs who forage. I remember picking blackberries in the woods behind my parent's house growing up, but that's about the extent of foraging.

    We really want to "live off the land" as much as we can, which brought me here to your blog. As Rhode Islanders, we're curious as to how we CAN forage. You seem to say it's not legal, but does that mean it's necessarily enforced, as the above commenter implies it isn't?

    Just followed you on Pinterest and wishing you had a Tumblr or Wordpress!

    1. HI Daniel, It is illegal in RI to forage on public land with our permission but I can't tell you how enforced the law is. I often see people looking for mushrooms and berries. In urban areas people look for abandoned lots to forage in.
      I don't have a Tumblr or Wordpress account but the blog has a Facebook page.

  4. Can you pin the link to the law that shows foraging on state owned public land is illegal. My understanding is you can't take the plant because that is protected but you can forage the fruits of said plant.

    1. http://www.dem.ri.gov/pubs/regs/regs/agric/pinebls2.pdf

    2. I've never heard of anybody getting in trouble for picking fruit (unless you're in someone's backyard). I would guess that these laws are dated or meant to prevent hordes foragers.

  5. Hope's Harvest is a nonprofit that gleans from local farms to donate to various places. They just became a part of Farm Fresh RI and have all sorts of volunteer opportunities!

  6. Does anyone know of any good areas to forge un RI