Keepers of time: Protection of ancient and native woodland and trees

Keepers of time: Protection of ancient and native woodland and trees

The Government updated its ancient and native woodland policy earlier this year setting out its commitment to recognise and protect the natural capital and cultural value of ancient and native woodlands and ancient and veteran trees in England. But it is not only ancient woodland which is protected in the UK; there are various restrictions and obligations of which landowners should be aware.

Ancient woodlands

Ancient woodlands have taken hundreds of years to establish and are defined as areas of land where there has been a continuous cover of trees since 1600. Not only do they boast beauty and character, but they are also valuable natural assets, which are important for wildlife and biodiversity, having developed complex and irreplaceable ecosystems. As detailed in the policy, ancient trees provide numerous benefits and improve our environment by providing shade, cleaning our air and water, nurturing our soil and wildlife and sequestering carbon.

Comprising only a small percentage of British woodland, the decline of ancient woodlands has been largely down to factors such as pollution, inappropriate management, invasive species, urban development and fragmentation.

Ancient woodlands are subject to varying degrees of protection to manage and conserve their special features. Some sites have a statutory designation as National Nature Reserves, Special Areas of Conservation or Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The SSSI designation, for example, requires ancient woodland owners to manage them effectively and appropriately. Consent is likely to be required from Natural England/Forestry Commission before carrying out works of management or changing an existing management regime.

Conservation area

Trees within a conservation area also benefit from protection by the local planning authority (LPA), whose prior consent must be obtained before carrying out work or cutting down a tree. There is a six-week period for the LPA to decide whether the tree or trees in question should be made subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO).  It is a criminal offence carry out works on trees, within a conservation area, without giving the proper notice to the LPA, unless the work falls within a limited number of exemptions.

Tree Preservation Order

Where a tree is protected by a TPO, works involving cutting down, uprooting, topping, lopping, wilful damage and/or destruction are prohibited without the LPA’s consent. Any works carried out contrary to a TPO would also be a criminal offence.

All areas

The Forestry Act 1967 provides that a felling licence is required for the felling of any growing trees, unless they fall within a number of exceptions. These include:

  • Trees with a diameter of 8cm or less (15cm for coppice or underwood)
  • Fruit trees or trees standing or growing in an orchard, garden, churchyard or public open space
  • The topping or lopping of trees or trimming/laying of hedges
  • Trees with a diameter of 10cm or less where felling required to improve growth of other trees
  • Felling for the prevention of danger or abatement of a nuisance
  • Felling carried out by an electricity operator due to proximity to electricity lines
  • Felling required for development authorised by planning permission

There are also concessions which allow landowners or occupiers to fell small numbers (five cubic metres or less) of trees each quarter without obtaining a felling licence, provided the sale of those trees meets certain limits (two cubic metres or less).

If these rules are breached, Forestry England or Natural Resources Wales can serve a notice, requiring restocking or the remedying of any breach of a felling licence. If this is not followed, they can carry out the restocking or other works themselves and impose fines on the person who fails to comply with the notice. If there is a change of ownership or occupation of the land after the felling and if the previous owner has not complied with the notice served on them, Forestry England or Natural Resources Wales can serve a new notice on the new owner or occupier requiring them to fulfil the terms of the notice instead.

Impact on landowners and occupiers

The updated policy from the Government highlights the ongoing importance of trees and woodlands to our health, wellbeing and environment. Before carrying out any works involving/affecting trees and/or woodland, landowners and occupiers should seek advice to ensure they are complying with their obligations, as there are strict consequences for failing to do so.

Furthermore, any purchasers or new tenants of farms and estates (or landlords taking back holdings from a tenant) should make enquiries regarding the recent felling of any trees and the service of any notices to ensure that they do not find themselves saddled with enforcement action in place of the former owner or tenant.