Tough penalties announced for unlicensed tree felling

Defra and the Forestry Commission have announced tough new penalties for landowners who fell trees without a licence.

The package of measures came into force on 1 January in England and includes unlimited fines and prison sentences.

Where trees have been felled on a site where a licence is required, the original £2,500 penalty has been replaced by an unlimited fine. Alternatively, a penalty of twice the value of the trees felled may be imposed.

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Those who fail to comply with Forestry Commission Enforcement Notices and resulting Restocking Orders also risk imprisonment following the 1 January law change.

As a further deterrent, Defra said Notices and Enforcement Notices would be listed on the Local Land Charges Register. The information will then be visible to prospective buyers of the land, potentially reducing its value.

The department claimed the hefty new punishments were necessary because the previous system was being flouted by landowners who were willing to fell trees and take the risk of being fined.

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 just £15,000 for the felling of 12 oak trees, all approximately 150 years old, Defra said.

Forestry minister Trudy Harrison said incidents like this could cause irreparable harm, scarring landscapes, damaging habitats for wildlife, and causing distress for local communities.   

“These robust measures, implemented as part of the Environment Act, empower the Forestry Commission to tackle the issue head-on with unlimited fines and custodial sentences for the worst offenders,” Ms Harrison said.

Forestry Commission chief executive Richard Stanford pledged to crack down on illegal felling.

“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,” he said.

“The 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,” he warned.

What are the rules on felling?

  • Before anyone can cut down trees, a felling licence from the Forestry Commission is normally required
  • Exemptions can apply depending on the setting for the tree, type of tree work, timber volume and tree diameter, and for diseased or dangerous trees 
  • In addition to a felling licence, other permissions or consents may be required, for example, if it falls under a tree preservation order (TPO)
  • The Forestry Commission can serve a Restocking Notice where unlicensed tree felling has occurred, with or without a conviction
  • Failure to comply with a Restocking Notice or conditions of a Felling Licence may result in an Enforcement Notice being issued
  • Further non-compliance may result in a separate offence being committed.

Further information

Defra has published a booklet (PDF) on obtaining permission for felling.