Protected trees: how to know which trees are protected

Developers must take existing trees into account when submitting planning applications (Photo: WTML / Matt Limb)
Developers must take existing trees into account when submitting planning applications (Photo: WTML / Matt Limb)

Trees can be protected in different ways, with variations in the level of ‘control’ or protection these provide. The law is the strongest, backed up by penalties or fines (the stick approach), while incentives encourage the right management (the carrot). In between these extremes are government policy and guidance, and designation of a site of national interest.

Protection and incentives come under devolved governments and agencies’ jurisdiction and may vary from country to country so it is important to go to the country guidance as a first port of call. 

Government, both national and local, wields its powers carefully because of the restrictions which would be placed on private ownership and the burden put on the state to apply the protective measure and monitor it.

To know if a tree is protected means understanding the mechanism that protects it.

Tree Preservation Orders

Considering how many billions of trees there are in the British landscape, only a tiny minority are protected by Tree Preservation Orders (TPO) which are made and managed by local authorities. Others are protected if they are within a conservation area, a system we would like to see extended to other tree rich areas of countryside or town, with or without the associated building protection element. Many local authorities now have online maps to help you investigate if a tree is protected by a TPO or is in a conservation area.

Considering trees in planning applications

All trees are a material consideration in planning. When a planning application is submitted, developers should supply details of any trees affected and show them on application plans with their crown spread and appropriate, calculated root protection area. The trees are usually categorised according to the latest version of British Standard 5837 Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction - recommendations. This system proposes that trees are surveyed and allocated to different categories according to their quality, whether arboricultural, landscape or cultural values, including conservation.

When a planning application is made, the Local Planning Authority has a duty to ensure that planning conditions are used to provide for tree preservation and planting. All the relevant development documents, including any tree survey or arboricultural reports, will usually be available on the local authority Planning Portal for members of the public to view.

Trees may become protected due to their presence on an important site. For example, Burghley House and its grounds are listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens (Photo: Sarah Shaw/WTML)
Trees may become protected due to their presence on an important site. For example, Burghley House and its grounds are listed on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens (Photo: Sarah Shaw/WTML)

Applicable policy

In England, development is also controlled through planning policy. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) acts as guidance for local planning authorities and decision-takers, both in drawing up plans and making decisions about planning applications. A significant policy for trees is incorporated in paragraph 118 which states that:

Planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.
- Paragraph 118, National Planning Policy Framework
Ancient and veteran trees are given some protection by the National Planning Policy Framework (Photo: WTML / Jim Smith-Wright)
Ancient and veteran trees are given some protection by the National Planning Policy Framework (Photo: WTML / Jim Smith-Wright)

In England, Standing Advice provided by the Forestry Commission and Natural England clarifies the meaning of this paragraph and how it should be applied. The Standing Advice points planning authorities in the direction of the Ancient Tree Inventory. This citizen science based database, run by the Woodland Trust in partnership with the Tree Register of the British Isles and the Ancient Tree Forum, is not yet complete, but it is growing all the time and is a major source of information about ancient, veteran and notable trees in the UK. We would encourage anyone interested in protecting important trees to add them to this database. Another inventory – for priority wood pastures and parkland (in England only) is available as a layer on the government’s MAGIC website.

Protection of wider sites

Trees may also be protected when areas of habitat or a heritage asset is designated, such as through a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. These may not protect individual trees specifically but it may be possible to help them through general controls or reference to original design layouts. SSSIs in England are mapped on MAGIC but you would need to search the Historic England website to find out about any designated park and garden. Other devolved governments will have maps and/or lists to search.

Incentives

There are sometimes specific incentives in grant schemes, especially agricultural subsidies, for the care and management of veteran trees. These are much more welcome to owners as they help to cover the costs of care of a tree that society has identified as important but which might impact on the way they wish to use their land.

You can help

Many important ancient, veteran, notable or special interest trees are not properly valued by national or local society and are therefore extremely vulnerable to loss. We encourage all societies to undertake tree surveys for their community so as to be able to help safeguard the most important trees if they are threatened.

Wokingham District Veteran Tree Association has led the way and has developed a working database of well over 6,000 trees that it monitors and talks about with the local authority. This is one of the best ‘protections’ of all – to identify the really valuable trees and to raise their profile with others in your neighbourhood, as you may need many voices of support if and when the time comes.

Demand better protection for our trees.

Act now to save ancient trees and woodland