Illegal tree felling in England will be punishable by unlimited fines and prison sentences from 1 January, the government has announced.
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The current fine for cutting down a tree without a licence, established by the Forestry Act 1967, is £2,500 or twice the value of the timber, whichever is the higher.
But the development value of the land, as opposed to the price of timber, has been the main driver of illegal felling in recent years.
To deter property barons from illegally flattening trees and accepting the paltry penalties as a cost of doing business, the Forestry Act 1967 will be amended by the Environment Act to allow uncapped fines. The Environment Act passed into law in November 2021, although its provisions against illegal tree felling are not yet in force.
Under existing laws, illegally felling 12 oak trees, all about 150 years old, attracted a fine of just £15,000 in January 2020. The case, prosecuted at Hastings magistrates court, was remarkable for resulting in one of the biggest fines in recent years.
“These new powers will hit people where it hurts – in their wallets,” said the Forestry Commission’s chief executive, Richard Stanford. “By guaranteeing that illegal felling is no longer a financially viable option for offenders, these measures are a significant step forward in the fight against this offence and will help in our endeavours to fight the climate emergency and nature crisis.”
The changes also mean a failure to replant illegally felled trees after a court’s restocking order could result in a prison sentence.
Selling land developed through illegal felling will also be made less lucrative, with restocking notices and enforcement notices listed on the local land charges register – potentially reducing the land’s value in the eyes of buyers.
But critics question whether the harsh penalties will be meted out often enough to be an effective deterrent. Last month the Guardian revealed only 15 of 4,002 alleged illegal felling cases reported to the Forestry Commission resulted in a successful conviction between 2012-13 to 2021-22.
The Forestry Commission, a non-ministerial government department, said its count of alleged wrongdoing is inflated by members of the public misreporting. Exemptions apply in the majority of cases flagged up, relating to factors such as the timber volume, the diameter of the tree and its location.
Local planning authorities already have the power to issue tree protection orders (TPOs), with those who breach them facing unlimited fines if the case is serious enough to be tried at the crown court. Earlier this year, a case prosecuted by Eastleigh borough council resulted in a £50,000 fine for a landowner who illegally felled a number of trees within Scorey’s Copse, including oak, ash, birch, hawthorn and poplar.
From 1 January 2023, even trees without TPOs could land illegal fellers with an unlimited fine, if chopped down without a licence outside of qualifying exemptions.
The forestry minister, Trudy Harrison, said: “Felling trees without a licence is illegal and can cause irreparable harm – scarring landscapes, damaging habitats for wildlife, and causing distress for local communities.
“These robust measures, implemented as part of our world-leading Environment Act, empower the Forestry Commission to tackle the issue head-on with unlimited fines and custodial sentences for the worst offenders.”
Abi Bunker, the director of conservation at the Woodland Trust, said: “This is a welcome announcement which should strengthen protection for trees in England. These changes should send a clear message that felling trees illegally, for example prior to submitting development proposals, will not be tolerated, and that the penalties reflect the value and many benefits trees bring to our towns and cities.
“It is important that this is backed by increased resources for the organisations that deal with the enforcement of illegal felling.”