Country & Garden: Hunters and gatherers

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Keats has a lot to answer for. By creating an unforgettable image of autumn as the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness", the poet led everyone to expect burnished, golden days at this time of year. We may be getting a couple this weekend, but most of August has been wet and cold - a grievous disappointment, not least as regards the wild harvest. Mushrooms, blackberries, hazel nuts, crab apples, sloes - all are there for the taking; but foraging is more enjoyable if the sun is shining.

The taste of natural produce is always enhanced by the slight uncertainty under which it is gathered. There are few dishes better than one of wild field mushrooms, and few more satisfactory sights than that of new mushrooms, two or three inches wide, perfectly white and round, nestling in dew- laden grass at seven in the morning. But to whom do those mushrooms belong? If they are growing on or beside a footpath, a case could be made out for their being on public property. But in the middle of a field, they must, strictly speaking, belong to the owner of the land. Is that person out and about so early? Unlikely. And even supposing he were, would he mind if he saw you pick them? Probably not, but you never know...

Often the fungus hunter develops much the same outlook as a poacher, moving furtively, hoping not to be seen. The same is true of the blackberry picker. Surely no landowner would be so curmudgeonly as to resent you raiding his hedgerows? And yet, if you have not obtained permission, there is always a little worry that needles as sharply as the spikes on the bramble bushes.

That is half the point of latter-day hunter-gathering: you can buy cultivated mushrooms or blackberries anywhere, but the frisson that comes from doing something mildly illegal multiplies the attraction of the wild crop tenfold. Another spur is the feeling that, if you don't pick the season's offerings, nobody else will, and the crop will be wasted.

In the old days the locals used to plant apple and plum trees along the lanes, with the double purpose of creating hedges and providing themselves with fruit. The other morning I noticed a few ripe plums lying in the mud: looking up, I saw that the tree above was loaded. The farmer would never bother with them...

Nothing increases cupidity like a bit of dereliction: if land appears to be unmanaged, that alone is an invitation to help oneself. The sight of an abandoned orchard, with the trees gnarled and, the weeds waist-high, is an irresistible lure. What schoolboy has not scaled a wall and run for his life from the choleric roars of gamekeeper or gardener?

I was once fortunate enough to have the run of an estate so magically decayed that a Thomas Hardy novel could have been filmed there without any rearrangement of the scenery. The gravel roads were so badly pot-holed that only a Land Rover-type vehicle could negotiate them: the fences had long since fallen down, the hedges were 20 feet high, the cottages and barns were on the verge of collapse. Behind one farmstead, lay the ruin of a kitchen garden, and within the high brick walls, filled by a sea of stinging nettles, stood an ancient tree which bore fruit of unparalleled sweetness. Scabby its apples may have been, but their flavour was incomparable, and I used to fill my pockets every time I went past.

Scrumping apples is a commonplace activity, but it is not often that one gets a chance to scrump wild potatoes. Spuds are so cheap to buy that - quite apart from the morality of the proceeding - it hardly seems worthwhile to steal them from a farmer's field. Yet if plants have grown on their own, and are simply going to be ploughed back into the ground, it seems foolish not to investigate beneath them. This year, in one field near us, thousands of rogue plants have sprung up on a strip of set-aside land: they are just starting to flower, and I have them marked down for a visit in a week or two.

Every hunter-gather faces competition, whether from humans or from other creatures. If you are slow on the draw with mushrooms, slugs eat holes in the caps, and worms tunnel up through the stalks. Grey squirrels never wait till hazel nuts are ripe, but start shelling them while the kernels are still green. Flies lay eggs in ripe blackberries, which are swiftly ruined by maggots.

Of all the competitors I have come up against, the most formidable by far were brown bears. One August, in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia, we plunged into a forest in pursuit of woodland grouse. The birds were scarce, but the forest itself was magical - a mixture of pine and silver birch - and not until we were well inside did we realise what treasure it contained. In every open glade red-currant bushes were growing wild, loaded with clusters of berries the size of marbles. As I crammed handfuls into my mouth, I began to prickle all over from the electrifying intake of Vitamin C. But then, from the undergrowth, came heavy crashings and the occasional growl. "Bears," said our Russian guide. "They also eat. We go this way, please." We beat a swift retreat.

Later we built a fire in a clearing and toasted our picnic sandwiches; but when someone suggested we should go back into thick cover to find some dessert, we decided it was wiser to remain in the open.