Trees and developers seldom coexist in perfect harmony. Often inconveniently growing in the wrong places, trees can obstruct views, block access, constrain site layouts and can even, as a consequence of their very existence, prevent applications from receiving planning consent.
So it’s perhaps not surprising that across the South Hams trees are being felled, often illegally. Entire woodlands have been razed to the ground such as those in and around Dartmouth, at Seymour Drive and Capton. Sometimes this has happened to clear a site before a planning application is submitted. Elsewhere, and often along the coast, it is simply been to enhance a view. Remove the obstruction, and the obstruction ceases to exist.
Yet all too often, when a tree is lost, few in the local or wider community benefit, only the chainsaw operatives themselves. And the trees we are losing are important for many reasons.
A few years ago, after numerous trees were chopped down at Curlew Drive, West Charleton, stainless steel netting, secured with steel plates and bolts, had to be placed over the soil along the shoreline of the estuary, in order to prevent further erosion of the cliff. The property owners may have improved their views, but at no small cost to the natural environment.
Further examples of coastal erosion caused by tree loss are also to be seen in both South Milton and Thurlestone.
And every time we lose a tree our landscape changes, seldom for the better. Our wildlife is deprived of food and shelter. Our soil suffers, as does our air quality. Climate change accelerates. And sometimes the configuration and appearance of our coastline alters, to the detriment of both our estuaries and beaches.
Fortunately there are a number of ways within the United Kingdom that trees are protected by law. These include Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs), Conservation Areas, the Felling Licence system, Restrictive Covenants, and planning conditions within the planning system. However not all of our trees enjoy any of these protections and, by the time the chainsaws arrive, it is often too late.
Consequently, if you are concerned that any of the trees in your neighbourhood are under threat, the first thing to do is to discover whether they enjoy the protection of a TPO. You can do so easily by using the Interactive Mapping facility on the District Council’s website and following the instructions here.
Unfortunately a TPO will only be served on a single tree or a group of trees judged to be of significant value to the community and where a possible threat to the tree exists. However that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You can do so by following the steps here. But even if you succeed, that’s still sadly no guarantee. Because even though breaching a TPO is a criminal offence and, should the tree be destroyed, theoretically subject to an unlimited fine, persuading the Local Authority to take action is often far from easy.
Both South Hams and West Devon Councils share a single Tree Officer, responsible for safeguarding trees over an area of 2,047.6 square kilometres. By comparison the East Devon Tree Team boasts three members with collective responsibility for an area of 814.3 square kilometres, equating to a far more manageable 271.4 square kilometres each. So in the South Hams the available resource is inadequate and inevitably seriously stretched, with the result offenders sometimes avoid prosecution.
Even so, if a TPO exists and you suspect works are currently taking place without permission, you should immediately contact the Council on 01803 861234. Conversely, if the works have now concluded and the contractors have since left the site, you can report it to the Council online. There is always a good chance action will be taken.
Advice and help is also sometimes available from your local Tree Warden, a community volunteer dedicated to conserving and protecting trees in their parish and ensuring a wider understanding of the importance of trees. You can find out how to contact your parish Tree warden here.
In the South Hams the current South Hams Tree Warden Network (SHTWN) was officially established in early 2011, in response to changes within South Hams District Council. Formally affiliated to the Tree Council, with a constitution agreed with the latter, the SHTWN works closely with the District Council, although it remains an independent body with its own Chair and Co-ordinator. You can find out more here, while you may well be able to find the name and phone number of your parish tree warden here.
Quite simply our trees, hedges and woodland are an integral part of our countryside and towns. They provide multiple benefits to society, from filtering air pollution to reducing surface water runoff and contributing to sustainable drainage, providing wildlife habitats, improving water quality and stabilising soils and slopes.
Without trees our world would change, and certainly not for the better. Here in the South Hams we all need to do whatever we can to protect them. Please help us to do so.
And, should you wish to read some examples of instances where the Society has submitted letters of representation that include attempts made to protect trees you can do so here.