Talk about Newsnight

Ethical Man - Justin Rowlatt

Urban foraging - ethical?

  • Justin Rowlatt -
  • 8 Nov 06, 02:47 PM

Justin Rowlatt - Click to watch the filmWe hear a great deal about how we should buy food locally as a way of reducing “food miles”, that is, the distance our food has to travel before it reaches our plates. So what could be more ethical than picking fruit from trees on the streets around my house?

The Ethical producer, Sara, confiscated my car back in April so I’ve had the opportunity to watch the local fruit trees blossom and the fruit ripen on the boughs. I’ve seen the apples swell to maturity, the wine-dark grapes take on their yeasty bloom and the figs blush purple. Yet nature’s bounty has remained untouched.

So are Ethical men and women like me allowed to reap this rich harvest? Read on...

I consulted various friends and colleagues about the ethics of what I have dubbed, in the spirit of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, “urban foraging”. They were unanimous: picking fruit that overhangs a public right of way is not scrumping, it is decidedly ethical and almost certainly legal.

I was comforted by their - admittedly inexpert - counsel, and, in the spirit of our editor’s Oh my Newsnight project, I made this short film.

But budding film-makers beware: “almost certainly legal” is not enough for Newsnight. More investigation was needed.

I turned to BTCV – the organization formerly known as the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. It publishes an invaluable reference work: “Hedging”. I was shocked to find that the law on picking fruit from overhanging branches could not be clearer: “A neighbour has no legal right to any fruit on overhanging branches.” Which I guess makes me and my two young daughters criminals.

rowlatt203152b.jpgIt seems harsh, given that the law relating to hedges is much more generous. “The owner or tenant of any land is entitled to cut off branches which overhang or roots which penetrate from his neighbour's hedge, as long as he does it on his side of the boundary.” Although the cuttings do remain the property of the hedge owner.

So is the law right? Should fruit that overhangs a public road be left to rot on the tree because its owner cannot be bothered to pick it? Should I be arrested for stealing those figs and – more heinously – drawing my children into my life of crime?

And if you’re a neighbour who recognizes their fig tree, medlar bush or grape vine do feel free to pop round for a cup of tea or a glass of wine when you serve me with your writ.

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 11:38 PM on 08 Nov 2006,
  • Will Brocas wrote:

Kudos, I have to say I strongly approve of this. Many a time I have picked blackberries from bushes along paths for my mum to make crumble with. Obviously there are limits, if I know my neighbours feels strongly about there apples, for example. “Urban foraging" shouldn’t be against the law; we live in a rather wasteful society as it is. It would be impractical for us able to all live as they do in “the good life” but this and example of finding the balance. Also I for one hate walking through rotten fruit that has fallen on the pavement.
As for your daughters, I think it’s great that you take them with you and are trying to impart some ethical living into their upbringing.
Although you have along way to go before you restore our complete faith in you, after the Jamaica trip, but this helps.

  • 2.
  • At 12:45 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • One Eyed Owl wrote:

Couldn't you knock on their door and simply ask? You never know it might help re-establish community spirit...

  • 3.
  • At 01:45 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • John, Sevenoaks wrote:

Still trying to get past the blogger's gatekeeper ('you are not allowed to post to this blog').

Is there a difference between eating the fruit raw (to save energy) or cooked (in crumbles)?

There! That's harmless enough, innit?

  • 4.
  • At 02:41 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Tim Mahoney wrote:

I wonder how long an individual could survive off of "Urban Foraging". Perhaps trees that produce fruit should be planted more often in large cities to help feed those who need it such as the homeless.
I hope the police don't catch up to you and your newly criminal daughters, cheers!

  • 5.
  • At 02:55 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Andy nr Blackpool wrote:

Oh well, you'd best lock me and my eldest up with Justin and his daughters. Or maybe not! The apples we scrumped were from some trees in the public car park of our local council offices. They made a lovely crumble for after Sunday dinner. Yum.

Perhaps this could be a way forward for local councils? When planting trees to make the place look green and pleasant, why not plant fruit trees?

  • 6.
  • At 04:34 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • tamara wrote:

Hi, I lived in Bath for a while and there was a walnut tree in my area on the boulevard that people paid no attention top, so during the autumn all the walnuts were dropping down and I helped myself all the time. Until I actually picked one off the tree and shook the branch to drop more, and the pub owner came out and told me off for not respecting the tree. I asked her whether it was more "respectful" to the tree to have other people step on them and waste them, and then perhaps go to Sainsbury's to buy some walnuts. I thought she was a busybody and talking rubbish so I just continued to pick the walnuts.

  • 7.
  • At 04:35 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Colin, Swansea wrote:

Is there any legal difference between picking fruit from a hedge surrounding an urban property and from one surrounding a farm, which has always seemed to be acceptable? Another point is that local authorities like to plant trees carrying male flowers only, to avoid problems from fruit falling on the ground. But these produce pollen - no doubt contributing to the increase in allergic problems.

  • 8.
  • At 05:00 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • JA Booth wrote:

Go for it, Ethical Man!
Every autumn I see so many gardens with trees and bushes bearing fruit that is never harvested, so it's great that someone is reaping the benefit.

  • 9.
  • At 05:23 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • abnego wrote:

I live near the bristol bath cycle path and I use it often for fun and exercise. Every autumn I do and see lots of others pick blackberries with the police riding past on their push bikes clearly allowing the law to be flouted!! Maybe the bike riding coppers are becoming more ethical too!

  • 10.
  • At 05:32 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Piers Mahon wrote:

Clearly the law has changed since medieval common law: the phrase "by hook or by crook" refers to a pilgrim's right to graze food that overhangs their route. If it was within said reach of the path, it could be gathered.

  • 11.
  • At 06:03 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Tess wrote:

I frankly have no problem with anyone picking the apples from my tree. There's a limit to the number of apple crumbles I can eat and, as they're cooking apples, people seem more hesitant to take them off my hands because they'd have to cook them in some way. That leaves me with a tonne of rotten fruit at the end of the season, which is a total waste.

  • 12.
  • At 06:59 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • sarah, trieste, italy wrote:

Excuse me, from which hedges are you plucking figs, grapes and apples? I can come and help?

  • 13.
  • At 07:22 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Justin Greenway wrote:

Hello from Sacramento, California which has the most trees per capita of any metropolis in the world with the exception of Paris. Not only does this beautify the city, but many, as you would imagine, are fruit trees and here one may legally pick any fruit that protrudes beyond the boundaries of private property - even agricultural orchards. Seems strange to me that it would be different anywhere else. Unfortunately, most people don't take advantage of this. Bravo on the urban foraging. I hope your endeavors change attitudes and laws regarding this subject. Oh, and I have been known to knock on a neighbor's door and ask if I could pick fruit from their tree. Most are very pleasant and happy someone is willing to bother.


  • 14.
  • At 08:17 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Adrian Read wrote:

Urban foraging may not be strictly legal (so that presumably rules out blackberrying in the country too), but surely it is not 'ethical' to leave perfectly good food go to waste... Perhaps this highlights the dilemma between 'legal' and 'ethical'...sometimes the law is wrong... go for it Ethical Man...I think I might wash it before feeding it to my kids though.

  • 15.
  • At 08:27 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • caroline wrote:

I don't see any problem with people picking fruit off trees. It's better than letting it go to waste.

It is much more ethical than going into the supermarket and buying fruit which has traveled thousands of miles. Our next door neighbour has an apple tree in their back garden which sadly doesn't overhang into our garden, but I wish it did. They never touch the things, which is such a waste. Oh but their kids do sometimes enjoy throwing the rotting apples into our garden and at our cat.

  • 16.
  • At 09:37 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Lisa Richards wrote:

Loved your film Justin! Urban foraging is a great idea and well practiced here in Australia, where generations of European migrants have left suburban streets filled with citrus trees, figs, stone fruit and olive trees. There are usually olive and lemon trees planted out on nature strips (the bit of public land between the houses and the road in most Aussie suburbs). I have no idea what the law says about taking fruit that overhangs, but the general attitude seems to be share and share alike. We used to have a huge passionfruit vine in our garden that fruited on both sides of a fence. The street side always had less fruit on it as passers by helped themselves, but we had so much fruit on the garden side of the fence we didn't care. The house across the road from us has a very productive nectarine tree overhanging the street. We didn't get on too well with the previous owners, so had to conduct our foraging raids in the dead of night or early morning! However, a nice young couple has moved in now, so this year we'll ask nicely and perhaps swap them some produce from our own veggie patch. In fact, there are so many suburbs with productive fruit trees in Australia that whole neighbourhoods have set up produce-exchanges. Our local environment park has a weekly market where a lot of produce comes from an Urban Orchard scheme where people sell the excess fruit from their gardens. When I was a kid, urban foraging meant eating fresh blackberries, making crab-apple jelly and rosehip cordial - all foraged in North London city streets.

  • 17.
  • At 09:47 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Anne Jones wrote:

We had a damson tree at the bottom of the garden. Children used to climb it to pick the fruit and run away when they saw us coming down the garden. We used to shout for them to come back and help themselves from the fruit we had picked. Our only concern was that they didnt fall out of the tree. The look on their faces was priceless, I don't think they had ever experienced anything like it! They did learn to come and knock on the door eventually.

  • 18.
  • At 10:48 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Lissa Allcock wrote:

I have a grape vine growing in my front garden and have a tendency to put up a sign on my fence encouraging people to help themselves. I have fond memories of eating grapes growing on my council estate while walking home from school and am happy to help that tradition continue.

  • 19.
  • At 11:24 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • EA wrote:

Any fruit from we have picked from our trees that we are not going to use goes in a cardboard box outside the house with a sign saying "Help Yourself". It doesn't take long for the box to empty.

  • 20.
  • At 11:52 PM on 09 Nov 2006,
  • Gill Gardiner wrote:

Not to survive, as such, but I've been able to do some rural foraging almost every day from late May to the beginning of November this year. In quite a small area, too, resticted to the places where either I take my dog for a walk, or that are around my cultivated fruit trees. Elderflowers for lemonade and fritters and now elderberries (though the birds are heavy on those this year as well), enough blackberries for a portion every day once they started, until November, field mushrooms, damsons, naturalised apples, salad leaves, sloes. I'm sure there would be more for people who really know about plants. It's great, it connects you to nature.

Just remember to pick fruits more than the height of a dog above the pavement...

  • 22.
  • At 06:46 AM on 10 Nov 2006,
  • will wrote:

Vote 1 for the right to pick stuff that grows over/on public access land.

So long as you don't damage the plants it should be OK. But there's the rub; if you let people do it, eventually toerags would abuse it to get away with damaging trees for the fun of it. So compost the toerags.

  • 23.
  • At 09:27 AM on 10 Nov 2006,
  • Diane wrote:

Do we waste food or what! I'm on holiday next week so I brought the fresh veg that I can't use up in time (green peppers, actually) and offered them around the office. It never crossed my mind to throw them away. My colleagues were astounded, although they did accept the peppers. Is this not the done thing?

  • 24.
  • At 09:36 AM on 10 Nov 2006,
  • Lucy Jones wrote:

Not quite the same, I know, but where I used to live we had a big holly tree in the front garden. Each December we got a surprisingly large number of people ringing the doorbell and asking for holly. Not being precious about such things, we always said yes. The comment from One Eyed Owl therefore rings true with me.

  • 25.
  • At 09:45 AM on 10 Nov 2006,
  • Jonathan Horan wrote:

I'm still eating the jam we made in August from the massive bramble bush that my neighbour had completely ignored.

  • 26.
  • At 12:41 PM on 10 Nov 2006,
  • Tina wrote:

Surely nature's fruits should be enjoyed by all - even if they were planted by the neighbours. My partner and I pick blackberries from the alley behind our house, Rosemary from a local corporate building's ornamental car park garden and chestnuts from the trees by the road. Who does it harm?

  • 27.
  • At 11:22 AM on 13 Nov 2006,
  • Sue Dowling wrote:

crazy that this is even an issue!I had a'fruit for free' bonanza this summer in which 'excess' fruit from our allotments, friends etc was sold via e-mail groups,among neighbours etc, all money going to a charity supporting sustainable development in Mali (W Africa). People were v happy to let us have their fruit when we asked.
After 3 such events we'd raised enough for a small forest for this dry Sahel region of W Africa!And it was fun, re-connecting us through stories of childhood fruit picking & offers of recipes. Now we're wondering about a street community orchard with trees planted in private gardens & on public ground, produce shared & a link to support sustainable agriculture sub-sahara.

  • 28.
  • At 03:01 PM on 13 Nov 2006,
  • mary wrote:

What I really dislike is the buying of masses of food in supermarkets and then wasting half or more. Foraging is great, as you normally tend to pick what you can eat or cook. And no wasteful packaging!

If the plants are growing in someone's garden (even on a boundary with e.g. a pavement) then it's theft, plain and simple.

Hmmm. Would it be ethical then to poach on my neighbour's unprotected wireless internet signal which makes its way through the wall of our adjoining houses? I would feel terribly guilty about that, I think.

  • 31.
  • At 09:04 PM on 18 Sep 2007,
  • Amanda wrote:

I am so glad I found this discussion. This is a topic that has been on my mind all summer. I live in the rural United States. When I am out driving I see so many huge apple trees just bending from the weight of so much fruit. I also see this same fruit going to waste and not being picked. I wish more people would at least offer up this fruit to some agency who could send volunteers to pick it and bring it to soup kitchens, food shelves for low income people, and homeless shelters.

Another thing that comes up is when we walk on little dirt roads and pick wild berries, is it ok to pick them if they are at the end of someone's quarter mile long driveway?

And lastly there is a wild grape vine hanging down in a local stores parking lot. It has been there all summer and finally is full of fruit that could be picked at any time. I would like to pick the grapes to make raisins. I doubt anyone will care but I have to get the nerve up to just do it because they spoil or the lawn people cut it down. It seems a shame to let these foods waste.

Ohhh and here is something else that got under my skin. I went to a farm stand and the people had a field full of tomatoes that were just rotting on the vines. I would be thrilled to go pick what was still good at a discounted rate! But no they will probably just sit there and become compost. Sigh...waste!

Good job on this piece. I am very cheered by the increasing number of people who seem to be figuring out that there are untapped sources of bounty all around us, even in cities.

To eschew our urban wild edibles would be ridiculous...

Silverton, Oregon

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