Today I was eating plums from a tree growing on private property, which I picked from branches overhanging the public highway. A passing cyclist said "That is scrumping" and I replied "Not on a public highway".
I looked it up. The Royal Horticultural Society advice is a contradiction:
Can I cut off overhanging branches?
Yes, provided it is done without trespassing onto the other person’s property.
Do I have to get permission from my neighbour or give them notice to cut off the overhanging branches?
But it also says
Can I pick and keep the fruit from overhanging branches?
No, not without permission from the owner.
Can I collect windfalls from a neighbour’s tree that overhangs my garden?
No, not without their permission. Windfall fruit still belongs to the owner.
So if I cut off the whole branch, that would be legal?
BBC's Newsnight explored the topic, and consulted some 'experts'.
Urban foraging - ethical?
. . . They were unanimous: picking fruit that overhangs a public right of way is not scrumping, it is decidedly ethical and almost certainly legal.
yet after further investigations, they conclude from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers that is is not legal:
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.”
But I am not a neighbour: I was a passer-by on public property.
One comment under the BBC's story says
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.
So was it once a right to take such fruit, and when did the law change?
The plum tree is part of the hedgerow bordering the property (in a semi-rural location), rather than in a garden or orchard. I don't know if that classifies it as wild, but it is not a cultivated variety, as the fruits are quite small.