Harvesting Fallen Trees | Is Collecting Firewood Legal? | UK

harvesting fallen trees

This morning’s dog walk was marred by a sad sight – A massive Sycamore tree lying horizontal across our usual path, presumably downed by last night’s winds. Of course it’s only natural.

Trees grow, trees fall, new trees grow in their place, and on and on it goes. Maybe I’m just a hippie at heart but it’s always a little sad to see. 

Anyhoo, it got me to thinking – What happens to all of that wood? Ecologically it’d be best to leave it sit, to leave nature do its thing and recycle that big old Sycamore into plenty of building blocks for the birds, bees and trees of the future.

But this was blocking a pretty regularly used walking path, surely it’d have to be removed in some shape. 

Which led me to my next thought – Is it legal to harvest fallen trees? If not, who gets rid of it and what happens to the harvested wood? Of course being from the UK the answers to these questions will be specific to our weird little island.

So.. 

Is harvesting fallen trees legal in the UK?

fallen tree

After doing a little digging it seems that the answer is almost always a categorical No. 

Contrary to popular belief, basically every tree in the UK is owned by somebody. ‘Common Land’ as we might see it is usually owned by either the local council or forestry commission, while private land is of course, owned by private individuals. 

So! Harvesting fallen trees it turns out is in reality a form of theft, and can land you in hot-water if you’re not careful. Sorry Chainsaw, it’s back to the shed for you. 

What about our common right to collect firewood?

foraging firewood

Again, a bit of a misconception here. 

You may have heard the Magna Carta of all things sighted in defence of this popular argument in defence of harvesting fallen trees. Enshrined into law in 1215, the Magna Carta passed the right of ‘Estovers’ to us common folk, which many claim gives us the right to forage the land for our firewood (among other things), which would of course include the harvest of fallen trees. 

This argument has been brought up time and time again by individuals caught on the wrong side of this law, even turning up in court once or twice. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite stand up these days, for a few reasons. 

Firstly, simply from a common sense point of view – this law (if it were true) may have made sense for the <3million population of the UK present in 1215, but perhaps the ~65million of us rattling around these days would be a tad overkill? You can see why the powers that be may prefer to air on the side of caution here. 

Secondly and perhaps more pertinently – The law was never really clear to begin with, but certainly doesn’t explicitly state our right to harvest fallen trees, far from it.

harvesting fallen trees

In fact if you read modern translations, it seems to refer more to ‘Swine-Drivers’ and ‘Nut Foragers’, so while that may be a dampener to any prospective fuel-foragers out there, at there’s some good news for our beloved woodland-based pig farmers I suppose. 

In today’s UK the only way you can legally forage for firewood by means such as the harvesting of fallen trees is through obtaining a licence, usually given out by the forestry commission in your area. 

In truth, this licence has never been all that common – many areas didn’t prescribe them at all, and those that did, appeared to do so sparingly. As of 2020 however, this route to foraging firewood is all but closed, with concerns over public safety wrapping it up in a thick cocoon of glorious red-tape. 

But hey, we can’t be sure that’s the case for each and every area of the UK. If you’re interested in foraging for firewood, harvesting fallen trees or collecting limbs from your local stand – Perhaps you’ll get lucky and snag yourself a licence. 

Give us a shout if you do and watch us try and hide the overwhelming jealousy that ensues!

So what can I forage for?

harvesting fallen trees

While we may not be harvesting fallen trees fear not – Common law has a consolation prize in store for us. 

The Four F’s – Fruit, Fungi, Flowers & Foliage.

That’s right, not bad for a consolation prize. So if it’s hedgerow jam you’re after, a bouquet of dandelions or a handful of wild mushrooms – Common law has your back. 

It’s worth noting however that this only applies to personal use, so don’t go launching your jam-empire until you’ve lined up a supplier or two. It also doesn’t excuse trespassing on private land, digging up the plants in question or override any existing law outside of the purview of common law. 

But hey, who needs a jam empire when you’ve got blackberries and daisy-chains for the whole family? Am i right?

Wrapping things up

And there we have it – Turns out you harvesting fallen trees is illegal, and the Magna Carta is maybe not as current a legal source as we prospective firewood foragers would have hoped. 

Who’da thunk.

As always I hope this guide has been useful. If you’d like to be kept in the loop of whatever comes next from us here at the EcoGeeks then please feel free to subscribe to our newsletter below.

Have a great day.