Approval for the felling (cutting down) of trees in the UK is granted through felling licences issued by the Forestry Commission, Natural Resources Wales or the Forest Service.
Felling licences may be conditional (where felling approval is granted subject to restocking) or unconditional (where tree felling is approved without the requirement to replant). Unconditional licences are routinely issued for silvicultural thinning operations and in these cases no woodland loss takes place. However, an unconditional felling licence may be issued if there are overriding environmental considerations, for example to enable the restoration of important habitats.
The removal of trees might also be required through a Statutory Plant Health Notice (SPHN). A SPHN may require the felling and destruction of infected trees or containment of infested material on site, and is issued by the Forestry Commission, Natural Resources Wales or the Forest Service to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. Similar actions are also required within woodland owned or managed by these organisations. They are currently being issued to attempt to slow down the spread of Phytophthora ramorum, first found in Japanese larch in the UK in 2009. There is no legal requirement for woodland to be restocked after felling under a Statutory Plant Health Notice. There are alternative arrangements within Scotland's P. ramorum Management Zone, where Statutory Plant Health Notices are not being issued but felling licences are still required. In Wales' P. ramorum Core Disease Zone SPHNs are still served to contain material on site, but felling still requires a felling licence.
The removal of trees may also be authorised under planning regulations, to enable development (including for windfarms). In this case, a felling licence is not required.
Further information on felling and Statutory Plant Health Notices is provided in the Sources chapter.
Information on unconditional felling licences that do not relate to thinnning may be seen as an indication of the level of woodland loss on land that is not owned or managed by the Forestry Commission, Natural Resources Wales or the Forest Service. However, the data relates only to felling licences issued, so does not provide information on whether the felling actually took place (or the timing of the felling). In addition, felling licences do not cover woodland loss that is authorised under planning regulations.
National Forest Inventory Woodland Area Statistics for Great Britain (Spring 2010) has reported:
- 0.5 thousand hectares of observed permanent woodland loss identified to date from work comparing the aerial photography associated with the National Inventory of Woodland and Trees (NIWT) woodland map to the NFI woodland map;
- Forestry Commission administrative based estimates from each country that sum to around 20-30 thousand hectares of woodland removal for open habitat creation or for windfarm developments across Great Britain over the past decade.
More recently, an assessment of woodland loss in Scotland has estimated that 19 thousand hectares of woodland were removed in Scotland in the 10 year period to March 2011, of which just over one half (54%) was on private sector land.