Of course we tend to think more about the risks and dangers that our trees provide during the winter season but with average temperatures of 17c for the South East of England predicted for the next few weeks and set to fall further in the coming months our thoughts are starting to turn to the more unsettled weather of the winter and the possibility of high winds, heavy rain and even snow putting in an appearance.

Both home and land owners (of all sizes) need to make sure that any domestic trees and tree stocks are safe and secure from potential damage to their surroundings and more importantly potentially to the public on a regular basis, and tree management should form part of a year round plan for inspections, scheduled maintenance and remedial work when needed.

Before you start to consider the number of trees you have versus the time and cost of inspecting them all, the National Tree Safety Group (NTSG) has provided a set of guidelines for a common sense approach to tree risk management. We have covered some of its points here but the full document can be viewed and downloaded from the link at the end.

Let’s be practical

It’s clear that not all trees can be, or are, managed, but those that are will generally be managed as part of an overall land management plan.  Current health and safety legislation requires that a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment is carried out and that ‘reasonable and practicable’ measures are carried out in the management of stock. The NTSG’s guidance undertakes this view in providing their advice with the consideration of trees also in a wider context (ie the pros and cons of them being there in the first instance).

What are the risks?

The overall risk to the public from falling trees is extremely low, there’s about a one in 10 million chance of being killed by a falling tree (or part of a tree) per year.

Trees situated in close proximity to pavements, roads and railways.

Even trees in well used areas pose a very small level of risk to the general public and, in reality, there are relatively few accidents each year attributable to falling trees or branches. It seems that the greatest risk comes from trees within falling distance of where people move at speed in vehicles. Even so, inspecting and recording the risks for each and every tree where there is perceived danger is not always necessary. Trees with obvious defects such as structural faults, but retained in frequently used areas may require specific assessment and management.  Those in well-used natural woodland or woodland surrounding housing or a public park may only warrant informal assessments to identify any trees of concern and marked for closer inspection.

What is an obvious defect?

The NTSG states that the term “defect” can be misleading, as ‘the significance of structural deformities in trees (ie variations from a perceived norm) can be extremely variable’. This makes identifying defects that are potentially dangerous quite challenging as defects only pose a risk where there is a likelihood of harm and where the risk is considered present and the danger is considered immediate.

Managing the risks from trees

Accidents involving trees that result in serious injury, disability or death are sadly on occasion unavoidable. Whether trees are managed or not will not expose people to a greater / lesser threat.

Although not compulsory, an assessment of the risks and having an ongoing management plan is very much seen as good practice, especially where there are trees situated in such a way that there is a potential for harm to be caused (particularly) to the public.

Any management plan should strike a balance between risks present and benefits accrued and any organisation or individual that maintains a tree strategy or management plan for the trees they own is much better placed to demonstrate they have fulfilled their duty of care.  This is particularly relevant where legal proceedings may follow an accident.

What does a having a management plan entail?

An actual tree risk management process contains around four steps:

  1. First the assessment will look at tree stocks in the context of their location, identifying any specific benefits to that location.
  2. The assessment must then identify any risks – are the public affected, if so, how and in what numbers? E.g. are the trees in an area of high footfall such as a paved avenue in a park.
  3. The assessment should then quantify what the actual risk is and whether that risk is acceptable.
  4. Finally, what action (if any needs to be taken).

The whole process throughout is subject to consultation and communication and eventually record keeping, monitoring and regular review for changes in circumstance.

Who should have a management plan?

The NTSG suggests that it is reasonable to expect organisations that own or manage trees to develop a management plan (in line with practice in other sectors). This could apply to public houses, hotels, local parks and estates as well as for trees owned that border roads, public paths, railways and riversides.

When are detailed inspections required?

Detailed inspection of a tree should be applied for individual, high-value trees giving high-priority concern in well-used zones and is usually prioritised according to the level of safety concern. For the most part, detailed inspections involve an initial ground-level, visual assessment by a competent specialist looking at the exterior of the tree for signs of structural failure. Occasionally there may be a case to bring in specialist equipment to evaluate the trunk or crown or to identify the specific nature of disease or decay.  The specialist conducting the detailed inspection should be able to demonstrate a reasonable basis for allocating risks according to priority, and identify cost-effective ways of managing those tree-related risks. Generally, detailed inspections are carried out as a result of informal observations about the tree’s condition. Regular, detailed inspections will only generally be carried out on a tree where the risk of structural failure is high or the location determines that a high risk is posed to the public.

In the end, it is important to recognise that no tree can be guaranteed to be safe and as long as we have them there will be a certain level of risk.

Landowners who already have a land or tree management plan can be reasonably confident that there is no need for any radical change driven by a fear of the law, though they may find the NTSG’s  guidance useful when reviewing management practice.

If you have mature trees on your property that you think may pose a risk and would like to arrange for an initial inspection or if you would like to discuss putting in place a tree management plan – please call one of the team today on 01473 635193 – ask about our TreeSurv service which includes a FREE no-obligation survey of existing tree stocks.


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