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Strategy and specialists in short supply when it comes to saving public trees

The second part of Noteworthy’s in-depth investigation explores the reasons behind tree cutting including a lack of policy and expertise.

TREES ARE BEING cut down in their thousands each year by Ireland’s local authorities – and there is no cohesive strategy behind it.

In the first part of our investigation into tree felling, we discovered that not only were almost 10,000 trees cut down by local authorities, many do not keep records so the true figure is likely to be a multiple of this. We also investigated the vague reasons given for tree removal as well as the practice of “topping” which is done by many councils despite causing significant damage to trees. 

In the second part of our investigation, we reveal that:

  • While a felling license is nominally required to cut trees, the list of exemptions is so broad that, outside of forests and some parks, there is very little accountability for local authorities.
  • Some local authorities – notably, Dublin City Council – have developed strategies for tree management and models for local consultation, but the wider picture indicates a general pattern of poor communication and consultation between councils and constituents. Many councils keep or claim to keep few or no records about the trees in their care at all.
  • With the exception of the Forestry Act (2014), which outlines which trees can and can not be felled without a license, there is no national oversight or coordinated national tree plan.
  • A widespread view that trees are being cut due to insurance claims or the fear of insurance claims is indeed one reason behind the felling of trees. Local authorities risk incurring significant legal and insurance costs due to people tripping over tree roots. However, some councils appear to be overcautious, often removing trees without carrying out any risk assessment.
  • The majority of local authorities do not employ any arboreal specialists with relevant knowledge on the planting or removal of trees. Decisions are often left to engineers who hold no suitable qualification, while the only requirement to carry out tree surgery is a chainsaw certificate and insurance. 

Patchy preservation

Contrasting with the seeming eagerness of councils in chopping down trees, only 16 of the country’s 31 local authorities have a record of tree preservation orders, with seven stating that they have no TPOs in their area and eight having no such record or not replying. The 16 recorded TPOs relate to 164 areas or individual trees.

Wicklow County Council has the highest number of TPOs which the council have detailed on the below map. These cover 46 areas countywide, 17 trees in Bray and one chestnut tree on St Patrick’s Road in Wicklow town.

It’s clear some Irish trees are luckier than others, and it’s all down to a postcode lottery, with some local authorities performing better than others or, indeed, keeping basic or more detailed records which allow for some public oversight.

Noteworthy asked three Government departments with differing environmental responsibilities – Housing, Planning & Local Government; Culture, Heritage & Gaeltacht; and Communications, Climate Action & Environment – what legislation/ guidelines/ best practice underpins local authority tree management, or whether there is a ministerial order, piece of legislation or some other instrument which designates this responsibility to local authorities.

All three said they had no responsibility in this area.

Effectively, this means that, with the exception of the 2014 Forestry Act which outlines what trees may or not be chopped without a felling license – and the exemptions are so broad that there is little or no effective restriction on local authorities – there is no national policy governing tree management in villages, towns, cities and parks around Ireland.

Nor is there an overarching tree policy, or any effective oversight mechanism: as shown by this investigation, local authorities can cut or plant trees without consultation, oversight or accountability.

  • This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. Find out more here.

Dr Eoin Lettice, a plant scientist with the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork, says that the 2014 Forestry Act is “the only game in town when it comes to managing tree felling, but you don’t need a license to fell trees in many circumstances. Trees on public land are managed by the councils, but those councils do it on behalf of us, the public, who own those trees.

“There does not, however, seem to be any formalisation of this. If you want to build or demolish a building, there are rules, but there are very little for the trees that form such an important part of our natural environment, despite the vital importance of trees on our landscape.”

Lettice says that we need a national tree strategy, starting with an overarching, national set of guidelines and objectives which would help the local authorities in their management. 

Tripping over tree roots 

Tree Felling 2 Tree felling by Dublin City Council Source: Pat Normanly

Not everyone wants to save all the trees, and people can have good reasons for wanting them removed.

In Oakfield Crescent, Sligo, the council has been investigating cracks which may have been caused by trees. In at least one case, they extended to a first floor bathroom window.

Engineers found that a large Leyland Cypress tree, located about three metres from the corner of a property in the common green area, was causing the issue. Roots were extending under the foundations of the building and one had penetrated the concrete strip foundation.

Noteworthy has seen documentation, provided by a source, showing that the council’s insurers were concerned that removing the tree could be seen as an admission of liability. So are insurance claims a significant factor in trees being felled?

In a recent interview with the Business Post, Dublin City Council’s chief executive Owen Keegan said that if he could, he would cut down every tree in the capital in order to reduce the exposure of the local authority to personal injury claims. He said: 

The burden on local authorities in terms of what constitutes a trip hazard… is much higher in Ireland than in other jurisdictions. A good example is trees, personally I would just cut every roadside tree.

He said they were a burden on the council’s budget and that some people had tried to claim for slipping on wet leaves. Dublin City Council did not provide figures on the number of trees it has felled before 2018.

Personal injury claims

Legal complaints are a branch of the story, but not the full story. Almost all requests to local authorities for information on the number of legal actions relating to trees were refused, with most councils saying that they did not hold such records, that they were not categorised by cause of personal injury incident and could not be compiled without extensive fees or that they were unwilling to release them under legal privilege.

  • Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, however, disclosed that there has been 39 claims caused by tree roots and/or uplifted roads or pavements, with 13 of these actions settled.
  • Fingal County Council disclosed that, between 2015 and 2019, they received 33 complaints about damage caused by trees, branches and roots, including 15 settled, two not pursued and three in which liability was denied.
  • Sligo County Council says that it has received “a number of claims for injuries related to road works, potholes and repairs, uplifted roads and pavements. However, it is difficult to determine whether this has been caused by tree roots.”
  • Longford County Council says that it has two ongoing claims for injuries as a result of tree roots or uplifted roads or pavements since 2015, including one in 2017 and one in 2018.
  • Offaly County Council says that it is currently processing “a number of public liability claims that involve falls, [and] trips on footpaths that may involve tree roots but these claims are not finalised and it cannot be definitively confirmed that the tree roots were the cause of the alleged accidents.”
  • Leitrim and Monaghan county councils both say that they had no record of any claim and no record of any correspondence with insurers.

One source who is heavily involved in tree management says that insurers are verbally requesting that local authorities “mitigate, to the best of their ability, any risks” that could lead to an insurance claim, such as tree roots that protrude from footpaths. This claim has been backed up by several other sources with knowledge of council workings including one who has advised a council outside the Dublin area.

“Where there is a lack of understanding, the simplest thing is to get rid of the tree,” he says. “And councils have a tendency to settle cases.”

Lack of specialist knowledge

Part of the problem appears to lie not just with trees upsetting footpaths, but the way in which those trees were planted in the first place. They need to be carefully planted in the right pits, but this is not always happening.

In The Hidden Life of Trees, author and forester Peter Wohlleben explains that the soil under streets is harder than park soil and that pipes and soil compacted during construction limits how far a tree can grow. Trees in urban areas run up against hard ground and get “desperate”, often finding their way back into sloppily back-filled trenches, which can make them more vulnerable to being felled during a storm.

And, because trees are fundamentally social, sharing nutrients and fungi networks, and supporting weaker or sicker trees, isolated trees or trees of different species on a single street (except those of a few pioneer species such as birch and sycamore) can struggle compared to trees in forests.

Click here if you are having problems seeing this map.

In essence, the reasons to plant and remove trees are complex, and require specialist knowledge. Several forestry or arborist professionals, some of whom have consulted with local authorities, say that while some councils go to great lengths to preserve trees – citing the construction works during Dublin’s Luas Cross City project as an example – the expertise is spread across local divisions in the councils.

“So, unless you have savvy engineers, such as in Meath and Dublin City, these decisions [on removing trees] are left to a single engineer who knows nothing about trees,” one well-informed and highly-qualified source says.

“The oak trees near Neary’s pub on Chatham Street in Dublin were planted in pits using top-end technology and they won’t interfere with anything.

“Councils have inherited these problems of poor footpath construction and poor design and planting of trees. Well-meaning people can easily plant the wrong trees in the wrong location, but they are planting problems.”

Another source says that this is happening in Galway and other counties:

They have a chainsaw certificate and they have insurance, but there is no regulation in the tree surgeon industry.

Noteworthy asked local authorities whether they directly employ arborists and/or horticulturists. Of those that replied (all but South Dublin County Council), Carlow and Waterford have arborists on staff. Dublin City Council, which numerous sources singled as a local authority that is using good technology on tree planting, has two. Cork City Council has four. Several other councils have horticulturalists on staff, including Galway City, Laois, Limerick, Sligo and Wicklow.

Donegal has a town gardener for Letterkenny only.

“This is down to budgeting,” says one horticulturalist who has worked with a local authority. “Most local authorities don’t have a horticultural department and the knowledge is lacking. Yes, there may be a parks manager and department, but trees need their own budgets.”

Council contracts

During the course of this work, Noteworthy received correspondence from members of the public suggesting that some trees may have been chopped down because contractors were paid for every tree cut and that councils set annual targets, as happens in parts of the UK. Tender documentation received from local authorities, however, did not support this.

For most local authorities, price appears to be the key or only determining factor in awarding tree maintenance contracts. Only Clare, Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Westmeath and Waterford refused to provide the names of contractors.

A number of people also suggested that trees were being removed because they can block 5G signals.

While there is some scientific evidence to support the suggestion that trees can interfere with 5G signals, an extensive trawl through documentation did not uncover a single reference to suggest this is a reason behind the felling of Irish trees, although the majority of local authorities did not release supporting documentation when explaining their reasons for felling trees. But there is little compelling supportive international evidence, as of yet, to suggest a widespread conspiracy between telecom firms and local authorities.

Without local authorities being required to document a reason for felling every tree, however, there is no way of gathering a clear overall picture.

Councils do not always rush to remove trees. The Gallops is a housing estate in Leopardstown and part of the Dun Laoghaire Rathdown local authority area. Built in the late 1990s as part of a wave of new housing estates in an area that was, until then, largely fields, grasslands and forests, the developers kept a number of old chestnuts and also planted lime saplings throughout. Those lime saplings have now grown.

Residents say that, although the trees make the estate a nicer place, the lower branches of the trees can obstruct pedestrians on the footpaths. Around two years ago, the council commissioned a survey of the local trees and, since then, some pruning of lower branches has taken place.

Joseph, a resident of The Gallops, recently contacted the council to complain about damage which, he says, is being caused by these trees. “I hired a gardener who told me that the roots were spreading out and not only damaging the footpaths but also the walls of the gardens. They’re also sucking the goodness from the soil and damaging my garden.”

Joseph contacted local Fianna Fáil councillor Deirdre Conroy who, in turn, got in touch with the council to say that a broken pavement posed a potential danger and that “it would appear to be impacted by the roots of the tree”.

Photo 3 Photo 3 showing a crack in an internal wall which was part of an engineering report on Oakfield Crescent. Source: FOI Documents via Noteworthy

In October, the local area inspector told Joseph that the low garden boundary walls often have little or no foundations and that this may be the cause of the crack in the wall. “There may indeed be a crack in the footpath, however, it is not rising at this crack.

Roads can assess this further. The photo of the broken concrete at entrance to a driveway (photo no 3) has not been caused by the roots of [a] tree, perhaps a heavy vehicle has driven over this.” 

The inspector says he “cannot justify the removal of this tree at this time.”

Working with the council

But we don’t necessarily need to look abroad for an example of how to green our towns and cities.

While trees can present a point of tension between local authorities and citizens, one innovative initiative in Marino, a small suburban neighbourhood in north Dublin, could present a useful model for other parts of the country.

In Marino, ornamental pear trees dot the area. While many residents felt they added character to the area, they shed a significant amount of fruit which, on the ground, turn to a slippy mush and, along with their roots which can protrude through footpaths, present a hazard. After two older residents fell and broke their hips, Dublin City Council received a high volume of complaints and decided to take action – but this quickly proved divisive.

Pears on Ground Pears on the street in autumn in Marino, Dublin Source: Pat Normanly

Pat Normanly is secretary of the Marino Residents Association. “I was constantly picking up the fruit but not everyone can do this all the time. A few people thought we should do something with the fruit. One resident got them tested in the Botanic Gardens to check that they were not poisonous. Some people made cider; it wasn’t the most palatable because they are ornamental pears, but the process was fun. Still, the supply of this fruit far exceeded demand.”

When the council decided to get rid of the trees, another local resident says, councillors were largely happy because it slowed down the number of complaints.

Among locals, feelings were mixed. Normanly says: 

There was some contention at meetings, but when we sat down with Dublin City Council and formed a plan, and then explained that plan to people, the community was open to accepting them.

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“We felt that the trees needed to be replaced, not just mown down. So a few of us got together and mapped out all the trees in the estate, including ornamental pears, and we sat down with the local parks supervisor. The council were receptive because they had been listening to phone calls about this for years and, although they had been sending out maintenance crews to sweep up the fruit, they’d nearly need to be there every day and they don’t have those kind of resources.”

Collectively, the community decided that the trees should be removed and replaced over time. The most problematic have been taken away first and the residents association keeps in regular contact with a council community liaison, talking to them four or five times a year.

Communities concerned about trees – whether they want them save or removed, or whether they want new trees planted – can take the power back into their hands, Normanly says. “Check with the council who is responsible. Link in with them. Ideally, it will be someone in the council who has a liaison with the local community,” she advises.

IMG_2171B Mature pear tree in Marino, Dublin Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Strategic plans needed

Stephen Barry, PhD candidate, environmental scientist and assistant lecturer in environmental management at the Technological University of Dublin, said that greening strategies are vital for Ireland.

“Coillte [which manages the bulk of state forests] is a commercial semi-state and their primary mission is to turn a profit. We need more trees in many places. In the 2003 Paris heatwave, people died in cities; trees can help cool the place down. Trees are also a vital part of water-sensitive urban design, because they absorb water and can help with flood management as well as sequester carbon.”

***

Strategic plans will be vital for the future of our tree network. But the majority of councils have no strategy for tree management or a greening plan, with the exception of Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown, Cork City, Fingal and Roscommon. A small number of councils including Galway city, Limerick and Waterford are planning or proposing to commission one. Wicklow and Clare, as well as parts of Louth, have carried out extensive tree surveys.

5G, endemic corruption and insurance claims have all been cited by various members of the public as reasons for why trees have been felled.

The reality, like trees themselves, appears to be a little more complex. While local authorities can sometimes be quick to remove trees for fear of insurance claims, they also have a duty of care to residents, and some people have been seriously injured by trees. While Noteworthy has received a significant volume correspondence from people concerned about trees being felled, we have also received correspondence from people who, for various reasons, want certain trees removed.

Much of the problems are legacy issues from previous poor planting practices. But if new trees are properly planted, as appears to be happening in Meath and Dublin City, these problems will not arise in future. The solutions are not complex.

That said, there is no doubt that there is a lack of checks and balances nationwide. As seen by the failure of many councils to keep any records on tree management, and the refusal of others to release them, local authorities can be as accountable or as unaccountable as they like. In order to preserve our trees, a more systemic approach, where local authorities are obliged to keep a simple record explaining why a tree is being removed.

Local authorities can look to positive examples, particularly in Dublin City, to develop tree and greening strategies. Meaningful community consultation may not make everyone happy – the likely rows over the fate of trees proposed Glen of the Downs road widening and BusConnects is unlikely to be resolved easily – but returning a sense of ownership over our trees can only help all of us improve in our urgent, necessary and existential role as environmental stewards.

*** 

This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >> 

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