Trees are vital habitats for wildlife, providing many different species with shelter and food. They also form an important part of our landscapes, offering valuable benefits for recreation, wellbeing and natural flood management.
Trees need management – for safety, habitat improvements or simply to ensure their continued good health. But this needs to be done responsibly, ideally at the right time of year and most importantly, legally.
Before anyone can cut down trees, they may need to get a felling licence from the Forestry Commission – and it is an offence to fell trees without a licence where one would have been required. For more information on this, we recommend consulting the Forestry Commission publication Tree Felling: Getting Permission
There are some circumstances where a felling licence isn’t needed:
- felling trees in gardens, churchyards or a public open space
- felling trees with a diameter less than 8cm (the width of a baked bean can) at a height of 1.3m on the main stem
- felling trees to prevent the spread of a quarantine pest or disease, as required under a Statutory Plant Health Notice
- up to 5 cubic metres of timber (a stack of timber the size of a small car) may be felled each calendar quarter without a felling licence.
If you have concerns about tree felling, have ruled out the above exemptions and suspect anyone of deliberate damage or cutting down of trees without permission, then you should report the incident to the Forestry Commission.
Tree Preservation Orders
Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) are made by the local planning authority (LPA), usually a local council, under the Town and Country Planning (Tree Preservation) (England) Regulations 2012. They protect specific trees and areas of woodland of high amenity value from deliberate damage and destruction.
A TPO can be placed on any tree and can also apply to woodland, although this is less common. They are most commonly used for urban/semi-urban settings, for trees with high ‘amenity’ or ‘nature conservation value’. If a tree or woodland is protected by a TPO, anyone wishing to carry out management work or remove the tree will need permission from the council.
If you would like to place a TPO on a tree or wood, you should firstly contact the relevant council and ask to speak to their tree officer. Explain to them why you feel the tree needs to be protected – TPOs are usually placed on a tree or wood which is considered be a local amenity. TPOs are a discretionary power – the council is not required to place a TPO on any tree. But where a TPO is made, the council has a duty to enforce it.
If you are planning to fell trees, you should firstly contact the relevant council to find out if these designations apply. If you wish to fell a tree or trees that are protected by a TPO, and an exception for a felling licence applies – for example, because you are carrying out works on a garden tree – then you will not need a felling licence. However, you are still likely to need to apply for permission to fell protected trees. In either case, we strongly recommend you consult the statutory guidance from the Forestry Commission.
When a planning application is submitted for development on an area of land that features trees, the applicant is usually required to carry out a tree survey. This should be undertaken by a qualified, professional aboriculturalist and will provide key details such the species, quantities and condition of any trees on the site, as well as the surveyor’s recommendations for the retention or removal of any trees. If the trees are within the planned footprint of the development they are likely to be felled if the application is granted, but should be mitigated for through replacement planting and/or other habitat provision elsewhere on the site. The applicant will normally need to apply separately for any TPOs to be removed.
If any impact upon protected species is anticipated, this will require a license from Natural England or Defra, and a management plan to be provided which will evidence how the impacts of this work will avoid harm or disturbance of protected species, or mitigate for this.
For more information about planning issues, click here.
Bird nesting season and protected species
Bird nesting season takes place from March to August each year. This can depend on the weather and some birds do nest outside of this period, so it is always advisable to conduct a check of trees prior to any work to ensure no nest is present. Although it is not always illegal to fell during the bird nesting season, precautions must be taken by law – and some species’ nests have protection all year round. Before any tree felling begins, the person undertaking the work should carefully assess the risks and how the felling will impact on resident wildlife populations and associated habitats. It is important to recognise that nesting disturbance can be from work taking place in the area and not just the tree being worked on.
Bats also roost in trees, and they are protected from disturbance by law. Unlike birds, bats use the same roost year after year, so the roost is protected all the time, even if the bats are not in it. Bats can often roost at the top of trees, which would require an aerial inspection to confirm the roost.
We strongly recommend seeking the advice of a suitably qualified aboriculturalist and ecologist before any work on trees is carried out, as expert advice and surveys may be required. Our environmental consultancy Wildscapes offer these services.
Tree felling must be carried out by a competent person, who should carefully assess the risks and whether the work will impact on any resident wildlife and associated habitats before any work takes place. They must ensure that protected species are not intentionally harmed or killed, that nests or roosts are not damaged or destroyed and that wildlife habitats are safeguarded from permanent and lasting damage.
Work to trees can take place at any time of year – but it is an offence to intentionally damage or destroy an active nest of a wild bird under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. If this occurs, it should be reported to the police as it is a criminal offence.
- Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act)
- Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERC)
For more information about reporting wildlife crime, click here. For clarity, if the nest is inactive or if regular garden birds are observed perching, feeding or resting in the tree, this would not be illegal.
Of course, illegal felling or deliberate damage isn’t something that only takes place in domestic gardens. These issues relate just as much to street trees, trees in parks or on other council owned land, rail network sites and other landowners too. In Sheffield we have developed a Street Tree Partnership Strategy which sets out guidance and direction for the management and maintenance of Sheffield’s street trees.
If you have any concerns about illegal tree felling or threats to wildlife and would like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0114 263 4335.