What does the law say about tree safety?
It’s not just disease that can weaken trees, as age and storms take their toll too. Tree owners have a general duty of care to not injure neighbours or their property, otherwise you may be found liable for negligence.
Insurance policies don’t always comment on trees in respect of liability to the public or require inspection at specific intervals, although policy wordings may have a general condition around ‘reasonable precautions’. This puts the onus back on the policyholder - and tree owner - to take actions which a court might deem as ‘reasonable’.
Insurers may, of course, question the presence of large trees very close to buildings where they represent a risk of subsidence. In areas more prone to tree root damage insurers may specifically request details of any trees within a certain distance of the building.
What if I want to plant more trees?
You may want to plant more trees to create a physical boundary between your property and your neighbours’, or you may want to create a serene courtyard for residents of your block to relax in.
In any case, the season you plant in and the location of where you plant can be important. Soil conditions and moisture levels are important. Pay attention to what other trees have been planted in the area to indicate which species might be suitable.
You will also need to be considerate of your neighbours and whether the planting of new trees might block the light from their property. In the government’s Explanatory leaflet for applications for rights of light certificates, it states: “If daylight passes across one piece of land to a window or other aperture in a building on another piece of land, the owner of the land with the building on it may eventually acquire a right to light.”
Check trees after extreme weather
Fallen trees and broken branches could lead to broken windows, and after extreme weather such as a storm, the condition of a tree can worsen. Be sure to keep an eye on their condition, to help catch any issues early.
Keep an eye out for diseases
November to March should be tree planting season, so it’s a shame to have to be thinking about tree felling. Sadly, there can be few parts of the country that are not being affected by diseases like Dutch elm and ash dieback.
Ash dieback, a fungal disease that has been a major concern for over a decade, can lead to severe defoliation, dieback, and ultimately the death of trees. Branches can be weakened and become dangerously unstable.
Not all trees that show symptoms will die. Some have a tolerance to the disease, and will not die even if they show early symptoms. Clearly it is important to retain these healthy trees so they can create the next generation of ash.
That’s why cases should be proactively managed and reported to local authority tree officers as soon as the first signs of leaf loss and dead branches appear. Find out more about the signs of ash dieback here.
If you suspect disease, contact your local authority. If in doubt about the safety and stability of a tree, ask a tree surgeon to check your trees. The Arboricultural Association has details of where you can find accredited professionals.
Is Dutch Elm Disease still a big problem?
The Dutch Elm Disease epidemic of the early to mid-70s rapidly took hold in lowland central and southern Britain. By 1980, most mature English elms had died due to this disease, which is caused by a fungus and spread by bark beetles.
It has killed millions of elm, changing our landscape so that the elm is rarely found as a large tree, but is more common as a shrub along hedgerows, or sometimes in woodlands.
The positive news is the development of disease resistant elms, although they are exotic species and we don’t yet know if they will fill the ecosystem ‘gap’ left by native elms.
The spread of the disease can be slowed with felling and the removal of dead and dying trees, removing the habitat of the beetles which spread it. It’s an approach that has been especially successful in East Sussex where there are now more elms than there were before the disease hit.
The first signs of infection should be reported to local authority tree officers, who can advise on appropriate felling and disposal.
What if there’s a Tree Preservation Order?
A Tree Preservation Order is an order made by a local planning authority in England to protect specific trees, groups of trees or woodlands in the interests of amenity. An Order prohibits the cutting, topping or lopping without express permission.
Some local authorities have maps you can check to see if a tree or wood has a TPO or is in a Conservation Area. If no map or list is available, or if there is any doubt, speak to your local authority's tree officer or equivalent.
If a tree protected by a TPO has been felled the landowner has a duty to replace the tree. This is also true if the tree is dead, dying or has become dangerous. However, tree specialists may advise that you do not replant immediately if the ground is still contaminated.
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