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Legal protection

This page is intended to give a pointer to some key laws relating to trees – it does not give legal guidance. Many different laws deal with trees, and what you can or cannot do depends on the law and the situation. This sheet is not intended to be an exhaustive list, but it highlights the main areas. It should be noted that there are slight differences between the laws in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Tree Preservation Order (TPO)

This is an order made by a local planning authority (LPA) to cover individual trees of exceptional amenity value, or groups of trees, woodlands or trees within a specified area, whether urban or rural. The TPO makes it an offence to cut down, top, lop, uproot, wilfully damage or destroy a tree protected by that order without the authority’s permission. Work can be carried out if permission is granted by the LPA. Exceptions include:

  • If the tree presents an urgent and serious safety risk (but you must notify as soon as possible)
  • If the tree is dead (but you must give 5 days notice)
  • Pruning trees in an orchard
  • Prevention or control of a legal nuisance
  • Removing dead branches from a tree

Breaching legislation can lead to an unlimited fine if a tree is felled (£2,500 for other offences)

Conservation areas

These areas are designated by local authorities for building and landscape conservation – the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve and enhance. Trees may be covered by TPOs in which case you must comply with that legislation. If the tree does not have a TPO you must give written notice of proposed work to the relevant Local Authority at least 6 weeks before work starts. A tree is defined as being more than 7.5cm in diameter at 1.5m above ground. A felling licence may also be required (see ‘woodland trees’ below).

Churches

Trees in churchyards may have a TPO on them or be in an urban conservation area. You also need to consult the diocese before doing any work in them.

Occupier’s liability Acts 1957 & 1984

The owner of the land on which a tree stands, together with any party which has control over the tree’s management, owes a duty of care to all people who might be injured by the tree. The duty of care is to take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that might cause a reasonably foreseeable risk of injury to persons or property. It should be noted that:

  • The Occupier (owner, tennant etc.) may be liable for harm or injury if a tree or part of it fails
  • They must take ’reasonable care’ to avoid acts which could reasonably be seen to result in injury or harm
  • The person to which the duty is owed includes all those that come within striking distance of trees (including on adjacent land) and may include trespassers.
  • The tree owner is not expected to guarantee that a tree is safe

Health & Safety at Work Acts 1974 & 1999

Employers must ensure (as far as reasonably practicable) that employees and members of public are not put at risk.  This probably includes the growing and management of trees as well as felling and lopping. Employers must make suitable and sufficient assessment of risks (to those not employed) arising out of or in connection with the undertaking of the work, thus a risk assessment must be made of the tree stock. For further information about the implications of the Occupier’s liability Acts and the Health & Safety at Work Acts see ‘Common sense risk management of trees’ which is available as a free download or to purchase, through the National Tree Safety Group .

Protected sites

Protection depends on on the designation of the area.

  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (or Areas of Special Scientific Interest in Northern Ireland) will have a list of Potentially Damanging Operations (PDOs) – check to see which activities require consent from the Statutory Nature Conservation Organisation before they can be carried out.
  • Under the European Habitats Directive, Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) are covered by the protected sites legislation for each country.
  • Under the same directive European Protected Species (eg bats, dormouse etc) are protected. Anyone wishing to undertaken an operation affecting a site or species projected by these regulations must apply for a licence from the nature conservation agency.

Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs)

Works proposed which might affect a SAM must be discussed with the local authority archaeologist and/or English Heritage (or country equivalent) before the work goes ahead. Underground, protected archaeological sites are prone to disturbance, so it is important when carrying out works near a SAM not to disturb the ground. Management to trees on SAMs can be fully compatible with the needs of the monument, for example reducing canopies to prevent trees failing.

Protection for woodland trees

Felling licences

These are required from the Forestry Commission for felling more than 5 cubic metres in any calendar quarter (e.g. January to March). A licence is not needed for felling less than this as long as no more than two cubic metres are sold (five cubic metres is roughly equivalent to one large oak tree or 50 thin chestnut coppice trees). You need to allow up to three months for processing.

UKWAS (UK Woodland Assurance Standard)

This is an Independent certification scheme for verifying sustainable woodland (most obvious to consumers by the FSC Forestry Stewardship Council logo). Approximately 50% of UK woodlands are covered. There is an obligation to provide a diversity of standing and fallen deadwood habitats, accumulate deadwood volumes and maintain veteran trees, and to manage suitable trees to take the place of existing veterans. Details are on the UK Woodland Assurance Standard website.

Protected species (especially bats)

Relevant legislation includes the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, the  Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CroW) and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (NERC) 2006.

It is prohibited to kill, injure, take or sell wild animals listed on various schedules. For some animals this includes damaging or destroying places that animals use for shelter, protection or breeding (for example bats).

All attempts have been made to ensure that the information on this page is accurate, but accuracy cannot be guaranteed.  It is essential that you consult someone with legal qualifications if you have any any doubts or questions.  No responsibility can be taken for any action carried out or not carried out on the basis of information given in this handout.

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