Round about this time of year The Ranger always gets a query or two about firewood. There’s the idea going around, rather conveniently, that there is a legal right for anyone to take fallen wood for firewood.
A typical enquiry was this one, from Ranger reader Graham:
I understand that common folk such as myself were given the right to collect firewood for personal use from common land as part of the great Magna Carta. Or have these rights gradually disappeared as land has been ‘stolen’ by the landed gentry?
So, is he right?
Actually, no. There is no general right in English law to collect wood for any purpose. In simple terms, all wood belongs to somebody, normally the person who owns the tree it grew on. You can’t lawfully take it away without their permission. It’s as simple as that. The fact that plenty of people do help themselves to fallen wood doesn’t make it legally right that they do so.
It’s a very practical way of getting rid of surplus wood, as any ranger or forester knows. If someone asks you for your employers’ wood, you have to refuse. But if you haven’t been told to bring back the firewood, then rather than sweat and gather all your logs up into the trailer and lug them back to the depot, just pile them neatly by the side of the path. Next morning when you return to the worksite they will have mysteriously evaporated. Very convenient, but not in any way a legal right.
Collecting wood on common land
However, as with all these things, there are subtleties to this, and exceptions. Graham, above, alludes to one of these when he mentions common land. There actually can be a right for certain people to collect certain sorts of wood from certain areas of common land. The biggest and best-known of these is perhaps Epping Forest – see comment below. But it’s very unusual. One problem is that it’s very hard to know what land is common land and what isn’t, and who has these rights and who does not. Common land is not the same as public land, for example. Common land is a really complex and arcane area of law.
However, the reason this is more-or-less irrelevant is because such rights of common are now very rare in England, and if you have such a right you will probably know about it. So assuming you don’t have such a right let’s forget that.
The Magna Carta – a red herring
But what about the Magna Carta? This one is – pardon the pun – an old chestnut. The Telegraph, last October, was trumpeting magnificently about how “the Forestry Commission has scrapped the right, enshrined in the Great Charter at Runneymede in 1215, in order to stop people picking firewood from woodland.” However it then rather feebly goes on to explain how previously wood-gatherers had to buy a licence to collect wood, and now they can’t. So if you’re buying a licence, it’s not much of a sacred right, is it? Anyway, if you look at the actual document it doesn’t say anything of the sort. Still, the Magna Carta is to countryside law debates what Godwin’s Law is to much online discussion – if someone won’t stop going on about King John and Runnymede it’s fairly safe to assume they are barmy and ignore them.
The four ‘f’s
Finally, and not entirely relevantly, there is that splendid bit of law called ‘the “Four F’s”‘. I have blogged about this before. It’s a little known but reassuringly archaic fact that under English common law you can normally pick the “Four F’s”, if growing wild – fruit, fungi, flowers and foliage, for non-commercial use, anywhere where you can legally go. Firewood is not the fifth F, by the way. Sorry. Now this does not mean that people can enter land unlawfully, but in areas where they can lawfully be – for example on a country park, or walking along a right of way – they are entitled to collect and take away the Four Fs. This is a right I exercised myself last Christmas – I went into a local woodland, open to the public, and collected holly twigs and ivy strands to decorate my house. Actually, as it happens after twelfth night had gone I burnt some of them, so I suppose in a way I was legally collecting fuel for the fire as of right.