Environment Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Ancient Tree Forum (ATF) (EB68)

Environment Bill 

Written Evidence re Felling Licence Amendments

The Ancient Tree Forum (ATF) is the leading authority on the conservation of ancient and other veteran trees and is the main UK organisation concerned solely with their sustainability. The ATF seeks to secure the long-term future of ancient trees through advocacy of no further avoidable loss, good management, the development of a succession of future ancient trees, and raising awareness and understanding of their value and importance. The ATF campaigns for UK Governments to recognise their international responsibilities towards the amenity, biodiversity and heritage provided by ancient and veteran trees. 

In the ATF response to the Government consultation Protecting and Enhancing England’s Trees and Woodlands’, we supported measures to enhance Forestry Commission enforcement powers, and are therefore in favour of the amendments to the Forestry Act set out in Schedule 15. But we also identified that important trees were still at risk and put forward suggestions for amendments that would significantly reduce these risks.

We are therefore disappointed that the government has not taken the opportunity to go further in the Environment Bill (20 19-21 ) to improve the protection of important trees and in particular, to give greater protection to ancient and other veteran trees as well as ancient woodland which the government recognises are irreplaceable (in National Planning Policy Framework, NPPF). In comparison, the Scottish Government has acted and amended Felling Licence controls such that the 5cu m allowance/quarter exemption is no longer applicable to small areas of native broadleaved woodlands in recognition of their vulnerability to complete loss via this exemption. Furthermore, the 5cu m exemption has been removed from Caledonian Pinewoods in recognition of their special value and the value of all trees within them. We urge the English government to follow this lead as it would be in line with the amendment to strengthen the duty in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 ‘to further the conservation and enhancement of biodiversity’.

The case for amendment of Felling Licence exemptions

The recently updated Forestry Commission advice on tree felling has significantly expanded and provided helpful clarification on the extent of some exemptions e.g. dying or dangerous trees, and felling in connection with approved development. The advice now also states that where any person seeks to rely on an exemption, they must be able to provide evidence to demonstrate that work was exempt. These changes should be helpful in deterring illegal felling. However, whilst the clarification of the extent of the 5 cu m exemption in relation to development sites (plus the powers to require re-stocking and maintenance for 10 years, without prior prosecution) might be sufficient deterrent on larger sites with a greater number of trees, it is recognised this still permits felling on smaller sites where the impacts of the loss of just a few or even one tree can be much more significant. This would be especially so if the felled trees were ancient, veteran, or mature (potential successors to veteran trees) removing or reducing the habitat value of the site and its continuity.

The ATF, with support of its partners and the public, has consistently campaigned and been supportive of policy, advice and legislation to improve protection, efficacy of control and importantly deterrence of felling or damage to important trees and their habitat in line with our aim of ‘no avoidable loss’ of ancient and other veteran trees. Members may also be aware there have also recently been two public petitions seeking protection for ancient yew trees and all trees over 100 years old.   Many of these trees are without legal protection as individuals, even by Tree Preservation Orders, and rely for their protection on felling licence controls to prevent pre-emptive felling or damage.

Felling licence controls are therefore crucially important in helping to conserve our most valued trees. These are trees of high habitat, or historic value and of great amenity, loved and appreciated by the public, as shown by the people of Sheffield and by the many people who rally in support of such trees when they are threatened. As Oliver Rackham has said ‘ten thousand
100-year-old trees are no substitute for one 500-year-old tree’. Additionally, such trees are already providing a range of ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration. To sustain these benefits – they should be protected. Because of the importance and increasing vulnerability of these trees, ATF considers that it is urgently necessary that they should be comprehensively protected wherever they are situated. This requires that controls under the Forestry Act should be extended and dovetailed and fully integrated with the TPO and Conservation Area controls under Planning legislation. This would secure protection for important trees and habitats and support the aspiration and commitments in the draft England Tree Strategy.

Changes the ATF consider are necessary

The ATF urges the government to take this opportunity to go further to combat pre-emptive felling of the most valuable trees on potential development sites in particular, but also felling of such trees in woodlands and in the wider countryside. We suggest that: 

The 5 cu m exemptions should not apply to ancient and veteran trees or ancient woodland as identified in FC/NE Standing Advice ‘Ancient woodland, ancient and veteran trees’: protecting them from development’, or in priority wood pasture as identified on MAGIC, designated historic parkland and other priority habitats e.g. traditional orchards and hedgerows.

Felling of dead ancient and veteran trees, recognised as irreplaceable in NPPF, should not be exempt from control to support the implementation of guidance in UK Forestry Standard. This is in response to the findings of the Woodland Natural Capital Account UK: 2020 which reported that 99% and 77% of woodlands are not in favourable condition in relation to the retention of veteran trees and decaying wood habitat respectively.

FC owned land is subject to the same provisions regarding ancient and veteran trees as private land and they similarly apply to any person carrying out work on that land.

ATF recognises that these changes would create extra licence applications. However, there is an existing regulatory model which provides quicker and streamlined decision making and a means to reduce burdens on both applicant and the FC. This is Conservation Area legislation in the Planning Act. The ATF advocates exploring a ‘light touch’ model such as this. It requires notice (S 211 notices) of controlled works to be given to the regulator and provided the regulator raises no objection, having provided an opportunity for interested parties to comment, after a set time, the work can proceed without issuing a formal permission. Failure to give requisite notice is an offence carrying the same penalties as other breaches of controls.

In addition, the ATF would wish to see the Environment Bill include a requirement that Local Authorities have, and keep up to date, Tree and Woodland Strategies. Such strategies can be used to distinguish those trees and habitats of greatest value which includes ancient and other veteran trees, as well as those which are rare or have cultural or historic associations, wood pasture and parkland, traditional orchards and hedgerows It is also   important for Tree Strategies to include an assessment of the overall age structure and condition of the tree stock in order to make sustainable tree population proposals. This information can significantly aid decision making when exercising regulatory and planning functions and is an essential framework within which to direct the high target numbers of new tree planting /establishment already committed to by the Government.

September 2020


Prepared 3rd November 2020