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 may be authorised under planning regulations, to enable development (including for windfarms). In this case, a felling licence is not required.
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. There is no legal requirement for woodland to be restocked after felling under a SPHN.
Since 2010/2011, SPHNs have mainly been issued to attempt to slow down the spread of Phytophthora ramorum, first found in the UK in 2002 on viburnum, and in 2009 on Japanese larch, a significant sporulating host resulting in a dramatic upsurge in the disease.
Statutory felling of infected P. ramorum infected larch does not apply within a specially designated P. ramorum management zone in south west Scotland where the high levels of infection and proportion of larch in the area make this unfeasible. However, felling licences are still required, and movement licences are required to stop spread out of this area. In Wales' P. ramorum Core Disease Zone SPHNs are still served to contain material on site, but felling still requires a felling licence.
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 thinning 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.
The National Forest Inventory report "Preliminary estimates of the changes in canopy cover in British woodlands between 2006 and 2015" (August 2016) has reported:
- 3.3 thousand hectares of observed permanent woodland loss between 2006 and 2015;
- a further 0.7 thousand hectares of ground under development and 0.2 thousand hectares of newly established habitats;
- 69% of the clearfelled area observed in 2006 had been restocked by 2012, leaving around 33.9 thousand hectares of woodlands in transition and open areas;
- 63% of the area observed as clearfelled between 2006 and 2009 had been restocked by 2012, leaving around 28.6 thousand hectares of woodlands in transition and open areas.
Further information is available in the report at www.forestry.gov.uk/inventory.