John Craven: Fight among the Beeches

Could the felling of a ‘protected’ beech make us rethink how we care for trees?

Gloucestershire floods


All the fuss over an old tree in the Yorkshire village of Irton has raised an intriguing question – just how effective is a Tree Preservation Order (TPO)? Because even though it had one, the 100-year-old beech was unceremoniously felled and turned into woodchip.

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For the last five years of its life, it had been the subject of protests and wrangling that cost an estimated £225,000 in legal fees – the amount of paperwork needed would have used up quite a few branches!

Some of its defenders camped out in it, Swampy style, while detractors said its roots were damaging drains and walls. The local council issued the TPO, but the county council wanted the tree destroyed and eventually won the battle.

The Irton case is complicated but it proves conclusively that these orders do have their limitations. “Regrettably a TPO does not guarantee full protection, because a planning application can overrule it and the tree, or trees, can be felled,” I was told by Paul Hetherington of the Woodland Trust.

As I wrote in this column a few months ago, most people love trees and the UK has precious few of them compared to the rest of the EU. Obviously if a tree becomes a hazard to health or safety or stands in the way of, say, essential new housing, it will have to be removed, TPO or not.

But if trees are so much a part of our landscape and our lives, shouldn’t we be doing more to protect the really special ones? The Woodland Trust, which is planting 60 new woodlands to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2013 has come up with a sensible solution.

“We would like to see neighbourhoods taking more control by getting together to decide on the trees that are important to their local area,” said Paul. “Any tree highlighted could then be put on the Local Plan. So any subsequent planning application that threatened those trees would be seen as going against the Local Plan, and therefore not acceptable.”

That concept puts trees at the very heart of community thinking. Meanwhile, TPOs are the only way anyone can attempt to protect them. Once granted, it is a criminal offence to fell, uproot, damage or even prune a listed tree without consent.

Fines can be up to £30,000 in England, Wales and Scotland, while in Northern Ireland the limit is now £100,000. Even so, across the UK there are unscrupulous developers and private individuals who will risk being caught to get rid of what they regard as nuisance trees.

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Recently, I was walking along a magnificent avenue of 200 beech trees known as the Dark Hedges in County Antrim – there’s a stunning photograph of it in this year’s Countryfile calendar (left). Many of the trees are coming to the end of their lives, but volunteers and landowners are keeping watch, ensuring that people who use the road are safe from any falling branches, and planting new trees to replace those lost. What better example could there be of good stewardship, of really caring for our beautiful ancient trees?