Windfall wood: the rules of taking fallen wood

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

windfall-wood1_webFollowing gale force winds and subsequently blown down small and large trees people often regards those as free firewood or timber for woodcarving and such like.

Many take to the streets or local parks and woods to stock up on fallen branches and logs for fires and wood burners or other uses. But they may well not be aware that doing so is actually illegal.

Parks, roads and train lines may be strewn with fallen branches following gale force winds, with whole trees blocking paths in places, but contrary to popular belief, all trees in the UK are owned, meaning the seemingly harmless act of taking wood for free could land you in court for theft.

Taking wood may seem like a harmless undertaking, but if you see wood on the ground, whether in woodland, in a park, on the roadside or even just on the streets near your home, this belongs to the landowner – meaning to remove it is in fact stealing if you do not have the owner’s permission to do so.

Historically, wood theft was less of an issue, as landed gentry would offer any extra wood to villagers due to their ‘estover’ rights. Those rights, however, only applied to a certain group of people and was and is not a common right for all the people living in the British Isles, as some people, falsely, suppose.

Nowadays, however, the majority of publicly-owned woods belong to the Forestry Commission, or to the county and local councils, and many people do not realize that helping themselves to wood is an offense, regardless of whether this was caused by strong winds or not. The most serious outcome is the risk of arrest and a potential court case.

Those rules do not, necessarily, apply across all of the UK. For example, an old bylaw for Epping Forest states that visitors may take fallen wood as long as it does not exceed the stated amount of no more than 26 lbs of loose or dead wood and of no more than 2 inches in diameter and 3 feet in length.

Cases like Epping Forest are very few and far between though, and with very good reason. Taking wood for free – in other words stealing it – has a negative effect on the livelihoods of woodland trusts, charities, conservationists, coppice workers and tree surgeons; the majority of whom rely on wood sales for vital income.

The simplest way to avoid any issues is to contact the landowner to check if you can take or purchase wood found on their land. It is also possible, for a small fee, to obtain a license from the Forestry Commission that allows you to legitimately collect wood.

If it is but small amounts of wood that you want, say for woodworking, such as carving and wood turning, upon asking the landowner you may actually find that he or she will let you have some wood for free.

Some tree surgeons do not, actually, make any living or try to, from selling firewood but are disposing off the arb waste elsewhere and this means that they, actually, have to pay for the disposal of it. So, especially if it is wood you want for woodworking, but even for burning in a stove, then making friends with some of your local tree surgeons might be a great way of getting free or cheap wood.

But if you are ever in doubt, as far as firewood is concerned, purchase your timber legally from verified wood merchants. Try to ensure the supplier is local, to minimize the environmental impact of transporting the wood, and that the wood is sustainably sourced from managed or coppiced forests.

Over the last couple of years, as wood-burning stoves have gained popularity (again) the theft of wood from woodlands and parks has been steadily increasing, including felled wood that is laid up for removal and processing. People have, literally, gone into the woods and wooded parks with bow saw and axe and have taken dead standing trees, fallen timber and, as said, felled timber.

Many people seem to believe that because that wood is on “public land” – there is no such thing as “public land in Britain – they can just take it regardless of whether it is fallen (dead) wood or freshly cut timber stacked up for drying.

However, as said above, it is theft as all land in the UK is owned, in the case of that what people refer to and understand as “public land”, by councils, either county or local and thus the wood fallen upon it or felled there is property of the landowner. Taking wood, however small the amount, without permission is theft and in many cases will be prosecuted as such, and that firewood could be very expensive indeed and lead to a criminal record to boot.

© 2017