We all love to see healthy trees growing – they beautify the environment, encourage wildlife, help clean the air, absorb CO2, and eventually provide a valuable resource from their timber.
However, it is important for landowners to appreciate that owning land with trees growing on it means legal duties and responsibilities.
In a recent case brought by Stagecoach, the train operator sought to make a landowner liable for some serious damage caused to one of their trains by the trunk of a large ash tree which fell onto the track.
To the relief of the landowner, Mrs Hind, she was not found to be liable for the damage, but there are a few important points to be taken from the decision which affect countless landowners across the country – from homeowners to farmers, commercial property investors and their tenants.
The owner of a tree does have a duty to act as a reasonable and prudent landowner.
In practice, this means it is important to inspect trees regularly to ensure there are no obvious signs of danger.
In this case Mrs Hind, who was a keen gardener had inspected the tree herself and had not seen any obvious visible danger. Given her knowledge, her limited resources, and the fact that in the past she had spent money on tree surgery, the court decided she was not under an obligation to employ a tree specialist to carry out regular inspections just because the tree was close to a railway line.
If a landowner had not had that experience, or had been a commercial concern with greater financial resources, it might have made a difference as to how the duty should be discharged.
In addition, had the inspection revealed a potential problem with the tree, then specialist advice should have been taken from an experienced aboriculturalist, and followed up by action if required.
This duty must not amount to an unreasonable burden and landowners are not obliged to ‘insure nature’ – but they must act if the danger is apparent to them and can be seen with their eyes.
The same principles of liabilty apply if a tree is close to a public road, or a neighbour’s boundary of course.
There is no need to panic, but make periodic inspections of trees on your land. If those inspections reveal a possible problem, arrange a closer investigation of the tree’s state of health.
The HSE publishes a useful guide on maintenance of trees.