Forestry Commission response to freedom of information request reveals only 15 convictions in a decade under its regime.
Fewer than 1% of alleged illegal tree felling cases reported to the Forestry Commission have ended in a successful prosecution over the past 10 years in England.
The Forestry Commission received 4,002 reports of trees being destroyed without a licence from 2012-13 to 2021-22.
In response to a freedom of information request, the non-ministerial department revealed that just 15 of those cases had resulted in a successful prosecution.
The average fine for a defendant in those 15 convictions was £1,847, with additional costs and victim surcharges totalling about £500.
Rebecca Pullinger from the Woodland Trust, a charity, said: “We need to see increased capacity and resources for the bodies that deal with the enforcement of illegal felling of all woods and trees.
“If individuals feel that they are unlikely to be investigated or that the enforcement via a fine is economically viable for them, then they are likely to carry out the illegal felling.”
The Forestry Commission investigates alleged illegal felling incidents and can refer cases to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Under section 17 of the Forestry Act 1967, cutting down a tree without a licence when one was required attracts a fine of £2,500 or twice the value of the tree, whichever is the higher.
However, a blogpost on the Forestry Commission’s website from 2019 acknowledged that “when these laws were made, the value of the timber was the main driver for illegal felling, whereas now the most common motive is to try to take advantage of the development value of the land”.
The blogpost continued: “The fines the courts can impose are based on the value of the timber and are now far too small in proportion to the potential gains from development.”
To deter property developers from tearing down trees, unlimited fines for illegal felling were established by a provision of the 2021 Environment Act.
But the Forestry Commission confirmed that, of the four cases that were successfully prosecuted in 2022, all were fined according to the original wording of the 1967 act.
The Forestry Commission said it anticipated the new law would take effect “shortly”, although no date was given.
Of the four fines handed out in 2022, the smallest was £604. The largest, £3,000, was given to a man from Newquay who pleaded guilty in late September at Truro magistrates court after destroying 103 cubic metres of trees in three areas of woodland near St Newlyn East.
The Forestry Commission defended its 0.4% successful prosecution rate and said that “many reports turn out not to be a breach of our licence regime”.
For example, a felling licence is not needed for landowners to clear trees with a diameter less than 8cm at a height of 1.3 metres on the main stem. The rules also allow up to 5 cubic metres of timber, a stack about the size of a small car, to be felled each quarter without a licence from the Forestry Commission. Similarly, trees can be felled without a licence in gardens, churchyards, in public open spaces and in inner London boroughs.
A spokesperson for the Forestry Commission said: “We won’t hesitate to investigate allegations of illegal tree felling. Those involved can either be prosecuted and fined, or in many cases are served with a restocking notice which requires the individual to restock the land with trees at their own expense.”
According to the Forestry Commission, it received 812 allegations of illegal felling in 2021. Of those, only 132 were determined to be in breach of the licensing regime. In the same year, 24 warning letters were issued, 52 restocking notices served and 33 criminal investigations started.
Ultimately, it is the CPS that decides whether to take a case to court, with fines levied only after conviction. The Forestry Commission has no power to hand out fines on its own.
Local planning authorities can issue tree protection orders, with those who breach them liable to pay fines of up to £20,000 if convicted in the magistrates court. In serious cases, individuals can face unlimited fines in the crown court, with one case this year prosecuted by Eastleigh borough council leading to a £50,000 fine.
“Right now, most ancient and veteran trees have no real legal protection in the UK,” said Pullinger. “Too many important trees are facing a range of threats, and we urgently need to see better protection via national policy for their protection.”
Source : The Guardian