Is Cutting Down a Tree a Crime?
A 300-year-old, award-winning Sycamore tree was chopped down overnight at Hadrian’s wall in Northumberland. The famous tree was voted English Tree of the Year in 2016 in the annual Woodland Trust Awards and has even appeared in Hollywood films. It is one of the most photographed trees in the UK and sits on a heritage site, the Roman landmark Hadrian’s Wall. A 16-year-old boy has been detained on suspicion of causing criminal damage.1
In the UK, cutting down a tree can potentially be considered criminal damage if it meets certain criteria under the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Criminal damage refers to intentionally or recklessly causing damage to someone else’s property without lawful excuse.
Whether cutting down a tree constitutes criminal damage depends on various factors. Firstly, ownership; if the tree belongs to someone else (e.g., it’s on private property or owned by a local authority) cutting it down without permission can be considered criminal damage. Secondly, intent; to be charged with criminal damage there usually needs to be intent or at least recklessness involved. If someone intentionally cuts down a tree without permission, it may be considered criminal damage. Recklessness, in its simplest form, means acting without caring about the consequences.2
In addition, according to the Woodland Trust, ‘it’s an offence to cut down, uproot or wilfully destroy any trees that are subject to a Tree Preservation Order (TPO), in a Conservation Area and over 5 cubic metres in volume (whether an individual tree or several smaller trees).’3
Trial & sentencing
If there is a criminal trial for such an offence then the more serious examples may be sent to the Crown Court, and ultimately a guilty verdict could result in an unlimited fine and even imprisonment of up to ten years. However, most cases of criminal damage will remain in the Magistrates’ Court unless there is a high value involved. In the Magistrates’ Court the sentence is limited to 3 months imprisonment for an adult and a more modest fine. A separate sentencing structure applies to youth.
It is important to note that specific circumstances and local regulations can influence whether cutting down a tree is considered criminal damage.
If anyone were to be charged with this offence, or a similar incident, the trial or sentence may be heard in the Crown Court if the financial (not emotional) value of the damage were to be over £5,000. If over that value the court can, but does not have to, direct the case be heard in the Crown Court. The defendant could also elect to have a Crown Court trial, should they wish to. As part of the decision making process in this case the court will look at the high level of publicity and the fact the tree sits on a heritage site, along with the likely punishment.
In addition, if it were a youth that was convicted of an offence such as this, any sentence or punishment would be centred on issues such as rehabilitation and positive integration back into society rather than punishment. Again, if it were a youth his or her identity would remain anonymous.
Consequently, anyone contemplating cutting down a tree should ensure they have the necessary permissions, consult local regulations, and consider environmental and legal implications. As we now all know, the public in the UK see trees as a part of the fabric of their community. The criminal courts will not look kindly on those who damage our trees.
If you need advice on the current law or you face criminal allegations related to this subject, please contact one of our crime experts for advice. Call 0808 271 9413 or request a call back online.
Co-Author of this blog is Emily Wilkinson, Leeds University.
1 Sky News (2023). Sycamore Gap: Boy arrested after world-famous tree cut down is released on bail. [online] Sky News. Available at: https://news.sky.com/story/sycamore-gap-boy-arrested-after-world-famous-tree-cut-down-is-released-on-bail-12972110 [Accessed 29 Sep. 2023
2 CPS (2019). Criminal Damage, The Crown Prosecution Service [online] Cps.gov.uk. Available at: https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/criminal-damage [Accessed 29 Sep. 2023]
3 Woodland Trust (2021) Cutting Down Trees: Law and Legislation. [online] Woodland Trust. Available at: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2021/03/tree-cutting-permission/#:~:text=Without%20permission%2C%20it%27s%20an%20offence,a%20Tree%20Preservation%20Order%20(TPO) [Accessed 29 Sep. 2023].