Prison sentences and unlimited fines are amongt a package of new powers to be introduced as part of a crackdown on illegal tree felling in England, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Forestry Commission announced today (Friday, December 23).

Delivered as part of the Environment Act, changes to the Forestry Act 1967 will deliver more enforcement options. The key changes are:

  • Felling trees without a felling licence, where one was required, will carry the penalty of an unlimited fine – up from the current limit of £2,500 or twice the value of the trees felled;
  • Failure to comply with a Forestry Commission Enforcement Notice and a subsequent court-ordered Restocking Order (meaning any trees felled must be replanted) will put offenders at risk of imprisonment, in addition to an unlimited fine; 
  • Restocking Notices and Enforcement Notices will be listed on the Local Land Charges Register, making them visible to prospective buyers of the land – potentially reducing the land’s value.

The Forestry Commission said landowners have been known to fell trees without a license in place, in readiness to accept the fine if they are caught and penalised, to repurpose the previously wooded land for commercial reasons.

These new powers, it said, will curb this illegal practice, streamline and strengthen forestry enforcement administration and serve to protect England’s trees, woodlands and forests.

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

Forestry Minister Trudy Harrison said: “Felling trees without a licence is illegal and can cause irreparable harm – scarring landscapes, damaging habitats for wildlife, and causing distress for local communities.

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

“Today’s announcement demonstrates this government’s commitment to protecting our precious trees, which are at the forefront of our efforts to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, tackle climate change and achieve net zero.” 

Forestry Commission chief executive, Richard Stanford, said the new powers written into law must help end the “blight” of illegal tree felling.

“Legal tree felling is part of normal forest operations and essential to ensure a sustainable timber supply and these areas are restocked with new trees. The Forestry Commission will not hesitate to investigate allegations of illegal tree felling,” he said.

“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.

“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, these measures are a significant step forward in the fight against this offence and will help in our endeavours to fight the climate emergency and nature crisis.”