It’s a burning question: When there are loads of fallen branches after a storm or particularly windy spell, is it OK to load up your wheelbarrow or back of the car and take the wood home?

After all, firewood can be expensive, and the cost can mount up after a long, chilly winter.

Well, 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 endeavour, 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 don’t have the owner’s permission to do so,” warns Phil Wood, UK & Ireland country manager for wood burning stove company Contura.

“Historically, wood theft was less of an issue, as landed gentry would offer any extra wood to villagers due to their ‘estover’ rights,” says Phil.

However, nowadays the majority of public-owned woods belong to the Forestry Commission.

[Read more: How to make sure your log fire and chimney are safe]

Many of us don’t realise that helping ourselves to wood is an offence, regardless of whether this was caused by strong winds or not and the most serious outcome is the risk of arrest and a potential court case.

“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’s also possible, for a small fee, to obtain a licence from the Forestry Commission that allows you to legitimately collect wood,” advises Phil.

But if in doubt, here are Contura’s tips for sourcing and getting the best from your firewood…

1. Purchase from merchants that source wood sustainably from locally managed or coppiced forests to be assured of your wood’s origin.

2. Buy good-quality kiln-dried wood or logs (also known as “ready to burn”) as the moisture content will be below 20%. This helps ensure the most efficient burn.

3. Species such as ash, beech or birch burn particularly well and are available in bags, making them very convenient to store. If you have a suitable storage space you can always cut and store your own logs (a wood-shed that allows air circulation for example). This ‘seasoning’ process can take 12-18 months depending on the species so you need to plan ahead.

4. Use a wood burner as opposed to open fire for maximum heat efficiency. 80% of the heat generated by a wood burning stove is radiated and convected into the room, compared to only 20% with traditional fireplaces (it is also illegal to burn wood in an open fire in Smoke Control Areas).

5. Wood burning stoves also require less wood as a couple of logs will burn for up to an hour, compared to 15 minutes on a traditional open fireplace, meaning you use less logs and get the optimum energy out of every one used.

6. It’s also worth purchasing plenty of kindling and natural, non-petrol based firelighters, as this is really handy to get the fire started without the need for dangerous flammable liquids.

Which wood works best to fire up your stove? Tell us in the comments box below