I had an interesting dilemma this week as I did my regular trawl of the woods for dry kindling and fallen trees. We own half of a block of woodland that has been largely untouched for many years – being old bog it is seen as being of little value, and not worth clearing and draining. There is no boundary, no fence and so the question of who owns what is rather vague, on the ground at least.
Anyhow, as I wandered about, I couldn’t help but notice that a large amount of standing deadwood and fallen trees lay rather tantalisingly but quite clearly in the bit of the woods that isn’t ours. Hence the dilemma. Clear it, assume that the chances of anyone noticing or caring are slender, but take it knowing it is from someone else’s land, or go and knock on the door, ask them, and risk the answer being no, and then the whole issue of being able to wander about the whole woodland freely potentially coming up.
Is it really ‘better to seek forgiveness than ask permission’?
Over the past century, the issues surrounding the rights to gather firewood have been of less importance than they were in earlier times, but as more and more people turn to log burners to heat their homes, suddenly firewood has become a commodity worth protecting.
I was lucky and my gamble paid off, though as I stood in the kitchen of my neighbour, with him holding court in his big chair, with wife and sons stood about, I felt very conspicuously the newcomer, poking around in territory where none had trod for a long time. Making my request wasn’t helped by the fact that a lot of people here in South Down can’t understand a word I say. After much consideration amongst the family, a couple of ‘what is it ye want?’s and some weather based small talk, I was granted my wood collecting rights, and breathed a huge sigh of relief.
I’m still not convinced they thought I was a bit mad for bothering to ask, and that perhaps I think the whole wood is theirs, but the end result is a good one, and I’ll be hauling deadwood out for a while yet.
Interestingly there is a widely held misconception that the Magna Carta granted us all the right to collect firewood from common woodland (of which there isn’t much), but sadly it didn’t – only after paying for a license, the purchase of which our lovely government has now abolished.  However, if you are feeling like exercising your right to forage, English common law does permit you to pick the Four ‘F”s – fruit, fungi, flowers and foliage, but only on land where you are legally allowed to be.