TREE PROTECTION, PLANTING AND NATURAL REGENERATION
WHAT PROTECTION DO TREES HAVE?
N.B. This is a brief overview to answer some frequently asked questions. Tree protection legislation is messy. Do follow up the links and get professional advice before acting on anything to do with trees.
Trees are very valuable to us. They fix a lot of carbon, clean pollutants from the air, provide oxygen, provide shade, absorb rainfall, improve drainage, support all sorts of wildlife, improve our mental health, reduce noise, and look good. These `ecosystem services’ can be worth over £1000 a year for a mature urban tree.
Unfortunately, trees do not have as much protection as you might hope for, especially on private land.
1. Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs)
If you are lucky enough to own a TPO tree, consider it a badge of honour! TPO is an amenity designation, so can only be applied to trees that make a noticeable contribution to the amenity of an area. This can be individual trees or groups e.g. a wood or copse. Amenity is a vague term. In practice it usually means the trees have to be clearly visible from a road or other public space e.g. a park. TPOs are not normally applied to trees growing on publicly-owned land. An emergency TPO can be applied if a tree is under threat. Anyone can put forward a tree for TPO – you do not need to own it – but be aware that applying a TPO costs over a thousand pounds, mostly in legal fees, so local authorities are only likely to do so where there is genuine amenity value and a threat e.g. from development. Local authorities can only act if deemed `in the public interest’.
TPO trees cannot be lopped or felled without local authority permission. To do so is a criminal offence. However the TPO officer is a valuable source of free advice to anyone who is lucky enough to own a TPO tree! You can find your local TPO trees at:
Keep an eye on your local TPO trees! All local authorities rely on people telling them if tree work is being carried out on TPO tree illegally. So if you see a TPO tree being lopped or felled, contact your TPO officer immediately to check whether permission has been granted. Ring the Council or email
Wirral: email@example.com 0151 606 2004 office hours, 0151 647 7810 out of hours
If no response and the matter is urgent, contact the police and tell than that a TPO tree is being damaged. Both the owner and the contractor are liable if a TPO tree is damaged without permission. Police catching the tree surgeons in the act gives much better evidence, but do take photos and videos.
The Local Authority can prosecute for TPO damage, but in practice does so only in the more severe cases which are considered to be `in the public interest’. It costs a lot of money in legal fees, and the local authority does not get the benefit of the fines.
If a TPO or Conservation Area tree has to be removed because it is dying or dangerous, then re-planting of some sort will usually be required, not necessarily the same species or in the same place.
2. Conservation Area trees
Conservation Areas are designated for their history and architecture, but all trees within them also have some protection. It is necessary to notify the local authority of work to trees in Conservation Areas, and the authority has up to 6 weeks to respond, so do think ahead. While one failure to consult might trigger no more than a stiff letter, repeated failures can lead to prosecution.
Obviously if a storm has left a tree in a dangerous position, then both these designations can be rapidly processed to remove the danger to human life and property.
3. Trees on development sites
Planning permission granted for development may allow removal of trees, including TPO trees, but will require compensatory planting. Always keep an eye on development projects in your area and check the planning permission to see what trees are supposed to be kept. Find the planning permission and look at the conditions attached at:
Retained trees are supposed to be protected by fencing during construction. Report immediately if retained trees are being cut down or injured e.g. by machinery, using the contacts above.
We currently have a problem with sites being cleared before a planning application is made, to avoid the expense of tree report, ecological report and Biodiversity Net Gain. If you suspect this, please inform us, your local councillors, and raise it with your MP. Once the Environment Act 2021 comes into full force in November 2023, local authorities will be able to insist on evaluating the ecological state of the land pre-clearance and require compensation, but there is an awkward gap until then when the situation is not clear. Lobby your MP to raise this with national government, who need to issue suitable guidance to local planning authorities.
4. All other trees on private land
There is no automatic protection for trees on private land except for TPO and Conservation Area trees. There is no other protection on trees in private gardens, churchyards or on publicly-owned land. No species of tree is automatically protected except for some very rare ones (under Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 as amended) but these do not grow in Wirral.
On land that is not a private garden, e.g. farmland, there is a felling licence limit. In any calendar quarter you may fell up to 5 cubic metres (m3) of growing trees on your property without a felling licence, as long as no more than 2m3 are sold. (This equates to 50 small young trees, but only one or two really large mature ones – there is a calculator on the weblink below). Felling licences always require re-planting or encouraging natural regeneration.
If you suspect a breach of felling licence, then report it
5. Trees on public land i.e. owned by the local authority
Both our local authorities have Tree Strategies which lay down principles for managing their trees. Both say they will only fell trees if they are dying or dangerous. The Environment Act 2021 requires highway authorities to consult on tree felling proposals (unless urgent for safety because the tree is dead or dangerous). Section 115; A local highway authority in England must consult members of the public before felling a tree on an urban road (a “street tree”). If you disagree with the Council’s actions, then contact your councillors and complain.
TREE PLANTING AND NATURAL REGENERATION
Storm Arwen blew down over 600 trees in Wirral Borough in December 2021, leading to worries about our tree canopy. New young trees cannot replace these immediately – that takes decades if not centuries.
Tree planting is all the rage at present, and that is excellent where it is `the right tree in the right place’. Thousands of young trees are being planted this winter by community groups, volunteers and individuals. Great credit is due to all these and particularly the work of Nicola Wallbank in organising the Wirral Borough Council plantings. The young trees will need three to five years of care to get properly established, but it is surprising how soon they can begin to feel like woodland. Visit Upton Meadow (Woodland Trust) where the trees were planted 20 years ago and see the young woodland that is now thriving there.
But planting trees is not always necessary. In most habitats on Wirral trees will grow by themselves if given a chance. Planted trees, raised in nurseries, are inevitably of limited genetic variability. Unless UK provenance is insisted on, they may not even by UK forms of native species. So in suitable places, it is often better to allow natural regeneration from neighbouring trees, whose genetics may be more variable. The importance of genetic variability is revealed every time we get a major new tree disease. Dutch Elm in the form that arrived in the 1970s proved lethal to English elm, a suckering species with limited genetic variability. We no longer see mature English elm trees – they are killed as soon as they get large enough for the beetle that spreads the disease to attack. We are currently seeing the same thing play out, more slowly, with ash trees and Ash Dieback Disease. Ash is a much more variable species, as it only regenerates from seed, and we wait to see how our local trees will cope.
Natural regeneration is therefore often the best way of getting new trees in and around woodland areas. Eastham Woods lost many trees to Storm Arwen, including aging beech trees from the early 19th century planting. But look around – there are lots of young beeches on their way up, which will grow faster where fallen trees let in the light. Our advice to Wirral Borough Council (and other landowners) is that in any place that is a Local Wildlife Site (= Site of Biological Importance) natural regeneration should be allowed and tree planting avoided. That is Natural England policy in all SSSIs.
However, life is never simple. Many LWS and SSSI do not need more trees – in fact we spend a lot of effort removing young trees from heathland, species-rich grassland and even sand dunes to preserve their special wildlife. Even in woodlands there may be special reasons for planting. Oak is not regenerating well in our woodlands, probably due to American mildew (introduced a century ago) and the very shady state of most woods. So in Thornton Wood, Dibbinsdale, Wirral Countryside Volunteers have re-introduced coppicing and opened up the canopy in parts, to encourage natural regeneration. But they also take a few acorns from there on good mast years and grow up some young oak trees for planting back into the wood. Truly local stock!
Of course, there are places where tree planting is essential, like along our urban roads and in parks which lack any trees to act as seed sources. In these urban areas we can plant non-native trees which might cope better with the conditions in a few decades, as climate change accelerates.
With Wirral BC budget cuts, there are visions of `re-wilding’ substantial areas of parks and other open spaces. It is unlikely to be proper re-wilding with large grazing animals, let alone predators! However, natural regeneration could play an important role with a little management. If grassland is just left, as happened in Arrowe Park when management of the hay meadow failed, then there is gradual colonisation by trees, but the seedling trees have to compete with the dense grass. Much better regeneration can be got by ploughing up the grassland on a good mast year, when there is plenty of tree seed, and leaving it for the trees to grow. Or even giving it help by hand-seeding it with locally-collected seed. Natural regeneration and tree planting do not have to be mutually exclusive. Planting a few strategic trees may make the space look better in the early stages, and can provide seed for species that are desirable but not present locally. Natural regeneration is not predictable. If one species dominates, then some management may be desirable, but we need to relax and not feel we have to be in total control. Some simple management like maintaining a path system can make it feel more welcoming to people.
We need to educate people that the early stages – long grass, bramble, young trees = `scrub’ are actually very good for many forms of wildlife. Insects, small mammals, small birds all find scrub good habitat for feeding, breeding and shelter.
So do plant trees – but the right tree in the right place, and also allow nature to provide the next tree generation where possible.