Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arboricultural Association.

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New powers to crack down on illegal tree felling

Author:  Forestry Commission
Last Updated:  03/01/2023
  • Package of tough new measures will protect the nation’s trees and curb the scourge of illegal felling
  • Unlimited fines and prison sentences for those felling trees without a licence to be introduced
  • Changes will come into force on 1 January 2023 as part of the world-leading Environment Act

Unlimited fines and prison sentences are amongst a package of new powers to be introduced as part of a crackdown on illegal tree felling in England, Defra and the Forestry Commission announced on Friday 23 December.

Delivered as part of the world-leading Environment Act, changes to the Forestry Act 1967 will deliver more proportionate, impactful and enduring enforcement options. The key changes are:

  • Felling trees without a felling licence, where one was required, will carry the penalty of an unlimited fine – up from the current limit of £2,500 or twice the value of the trees felled;
  • Failure to comply with a Forestry Commission Enforcement Notice and a subsequent court-ordered Restocking Order (meaning any trees felled must be replanted) will put offenders at risk of imprisonment, in addition to an unlimited fine;
  • Restocking Notices and Enforcement Notices will be listed on the Local Land Charges Register, making them visible to prospective buyers of the land – potentially reducing the land’s value.

Landowners have been known to fell trees without a licence in place, in readiness to accept the fine if they are caught and penalised, to repurpose the previously wooded land for commercial reasons. These new powers will curb this illegal practice, streamline and strengthen forestry enforcement administration, and serve to protect our trees, woodlands and forests.

The largest fine issued in recent years following a report of illegal tree felling to the Forestry Commission took place in Hailsham, East Sussex, in January 2020. Hastings Magistrates Court issued a fine of almost £15,000 for the felling of 12 oak trees, all approximately 150 years old.

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.

“Today’s announcement demonstrates this Government’s commitment to protecting our precious trees, which are at the forefront of our efforts to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, tackle climate change and achieve net zero.”

Forestry Commission Chief Executive Richard Stanford said:

“I am very pleased to see these new powers written into law; as we expand the numbers of trees in England, we must end the blight of illegal tree felling.

“Legal tree felling is part of normal forest operations and essential to ensure a sustainable timber supply and these areas are restocked with new trees. The Forestry Commission will not hesitate to investigate allegations of illegal tree felling. Once reported, our top priority is to make sure the harm caused by the felling is put right by ensuring trees are replanted wherever possible. In cases which merit it, we will always seek prosecution.

“These new powers will hit people where it hurts – in their wallets. 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.”

Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and External Affairs, 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. We hope this is a step towards better protection of trees and recognising and protecting our oldest trees as essential parts of our heritage and the most important for climate and nature.”

Bringing greater transparency to the forestry enforcement process, these provisions will also clarify that when an Enforcement Notice is affected by a change in land ownership, the new land owner will inherit the responsibilities of an Enforcement Notice. Furthermore, the new clauses will reclassify Restocking and Enforcement Notices as local land charges, which appear on the local land charge register. This register is routinely checked by conveyancers and will likely deter prospective buyers, removing some of the financial incentive to illegally fell trees.

Finally, the Forestry Commission will have powers to compel the landowner to provide information regarding who else has an interest in the land, including leaseholders and tenants. While the owner will be listed on HM Land Registry, demonstrating who occupies a woodland can be more challenging – these measures will improve visibility in this regard and help to better target any appropriate enforcement action.

Further information

Before anyone can cut down trees, a felling licence from the Forestry Commission is typically required. Exemptions do apply – based on the setting for the tree, type of tree work, timber volume and tree diameter, amongst others. In addition to a felling licence, other permissions or consents to fell the trees may also be required.

Currently, under the Forestry Act 1967, the Forestry Commission is empowered to serve a Restocking Notice upon the individual responsible for the land where unlicensed tree felling occurs, either with or without having secured a conviction. This Notice compels the individual served to restock the land with trees. In addition to a Restocking Notice, a penalty upon conviction for unlicensed felling is currently set at a maximum fine of £2,500 or twice the value of the trees felled, whichever is higher. From 1 January 2023, this increases to an unlimited fine.

Failure to comply with a Restocking Notice or conditions of a Felling Licence may result in an Enforcement Notice being issued, which compels the individual to comply with the conditions in a Restocking Notice or Felling Licence. Further non-compliance may result in a separate offence being committed, which currently carries a penalty of an unlimited fine upon conviction in a Magistrates court. From January 1st 2023, courts will be able to issue a Restocking Order compelling the individual to restock trees or risk being served with a custodial sentence.

The Forestry Commission receives a large number of reports of alleged illegal felling, typically from members of the public. Our staff always look into these reports, but not all reports will in fact be a breach of the felling licence regime. You can report suspected illegal tree felling online.