What Protection is Wildlife Given when Pruning or Felling Trees?

When my partner and I first moved into our (rented) property, one of the features that sold it to us was the garden with its two huge conifers at the front. I loved watching the squirrels running up and down the trees, jumping from branch to branch in the Spring. However, the abnormally hot UK summer bought a host of problems, one of the main ones being huge cracks appearing all throughout the property. It was determined that the roots of the trees, desperate for water, were pulling all of the moisture out of the walls of the house, causing them to crack and the house to move. As such, the trees needed to go.

My main concern was for the squirrels and birds, and I wondered if there were any protocols or any laws concerning the displacement of wildlife when felling or pruning trees, so I decided to do some research.

Turns out, there isn’t much.

If you are cutting down a tree in your own garden, then unless there has been a Tree Preservation Order placed on any of the trees or they are in a conservation area, you are under no legal constraints aside from one main one; it is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 to intentionally take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird or the roost of a bat whilst it is in use, or indeed harm or kill any bird/bat. As such, a ‘closed’ period has been set between the 1st March and 31st August (inclusive) which means it is strongly recommended not to prune or fell a tree during this period as this is deemed to be the main breeding period for wild animals. It should be noted that Game birds aren’t included by this, but instead are covered by the Game Acts which protects them fully during the closed season.

However, this ruling only covers birds and bats – other wildlife such as squirrels or other tree dwelling creatures are not covered. There has also been concern around the wording used – ‘intentionally’. This provides an effective loophole for those who are caught to argue that despite checking the nest was hidden, they did not spot signs of it being used (a nest which is currently being built is deemed to be in use) and generally allows people to feign ignorance of the damage they are causing.

In addition it has been known for birds to be using their nests outside of this period, and milder winters can mean birds taking to nesting earlier than the defined closed period, and so this guideline should not prevent people from checking trees outside of this period.

Another main issue is the policing of this requirement as it is virtually impossible to enforce if we are talking about someone on their private land, whose trees are unprotected. Whilst there have been limitation placed on the amount of trees this can cover, even on private land, by the Forestry Commission there are many exemptions to this limitation as outlined in the The Forestry Act 1967.

1024px-Wien_01_Rathauspark_df(By Gugerell [CC0], from Wikimedia Commons)

Conservation areas, areas covered under the forestry commission and trees with protection orders are slightly different with a lot more restrictions placed on the pruning and felling of trees. However, none of these additional restrictions include anything aimed at protecting the wildlife that may be reliant on those trees. Whilst there may be more of an attempt to adhere to the regulation which deems it illegal to damage nests that are in use, often by ensuring that ecologists are on site to assist with checks, the aforementioned loophole that the use of the word ‘intentionally’ creates means that even in large felling projects there is still an excuse that can be made for those who don’t check properly or simply don’t care.

Whilst the above covers birds, it neglects other wildlife that are reliant on trees, such as squirrels, insects and fungi. Trees provide a rich source of materials for other animals; some native bee species use the sap produced by certain trees to help seal their nest cells for example. In fact, if you head to the Woking Borough Council website under their ‘trees’ section they have a list of FAQ’s relating to pruning and felling of trees, one of them being ‘What can I do about grey squirrels in my tree?’ Their answer is to contact a local pest control firm – not exactly the answer I was looking for, and considering we are talking about animals in their natural habitat rather than, say, in your home, seems an uncalled for first response (although I would like to note that the article in general approaches tree pruning from a very caring and otherwise ecologically friendly stand point). It highlights though how little thought or care many have for ‘common’ wildlife – maybe if we get to the stage where squirrel numbers decline attitudes will change, but it says a lot that this would probably have to happen before anything is put in place.

The trees have now gone, and in just a matter of days there has been a distinct drop in the number of squirrels around the area (they weren’t the only trees in the garden but were by far the largest and the most bountiful). Whilst there are several bodies involved in the regulation of the Wildlife Act and penalties in place for those who are found to have broken the law, as usual the law itself and the enforcement of such doesn’t seem to go far enough.

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Jessica Howard

Jessica Howard

31 years old, currently living and working in London, UK.

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