A net gain for tree protection

There have been a number of reports in the media about the practice of placing nets over trees in order to stop birds nesting, with individuals and organisations complaining about the effects on wildlife, even with petitions and calls to outlaw the practice.

Surely they are missing the point. In many cases, the alternative to having nets over the trees would be that the trees would be cut down, with exactly the same effect on birds’ ability to nest there, only much more permanently, with lots of other adverse effects on the environment too.

Most of the nets have been placed on trees on sites earmarked for development. However, work on trees is not supposed to be done during “bird nesting season”, usually taken to mean between March and August or September. If developers do not remove trees before March, they risk having their plans held up.

Landowners are often not allowed to remove trees when they want to. There are various ways that trees can be protected. The strongest is a Tree Preservation Order (TPO). Individual trees or groups of trees that are considered important, either as specimens or for their contribution to the landscape, can be protected by a TPO. It is then an offence to damage the tree, punishable by a large fine and the requirement to replace the tree in the same spot. Then there are conservation areas. These are areas, often historic parts of a town, that are protected in order to retain their character. This covers changes to buildings but also trees. In addition to TPOs and conservation areas, when a developer gains planning permission to develop a site, certain conditions can be applied. This may include retaining certain trees, or presenting a arboricultural method statement and landscaping plan to the local planning authority. Often, until the conditions are met, no work may be carried on on site.

The nets people are complaining about are largely on sites either where planning permission has been granted, but conditions attached to that permission have not been discharged; or else they are sites where permission has not yet been granted. If placing nets over trees was banned, the risk would be that developers would speculatively remove unprotected trees from sites in case they gain planning permission, to ensure they are not held up by nesting birds. In other cases, where the trees are protected, it may mean the trees survive for one more season before permission to remove them has been granted. But surely people are campaigning on the wrong issue here?

The real problem is too many trees are being removed from development sites. Housebuilders want to squeeze as many houses as possible onto a plot in order to maximise their profits. Commercial developers want to build the largest units they can. Public sector organisations don’t want trees to obscure their shiny new buildings and expensive corporate-style logos. Funnily enough, where trees are covered by a TPO and permission to remove them is refused, developers manage to work around them quite happily. Mature trees are an extremely valuable resource. They are essential for harbouring wildlife, clean the air and make the area a more pleasant place for people to live and work. Instead of campaigning to ban nets, people should be campaigning to reduce the number of trees that are destroyed by developers every year. This should in turn make the use of nets unnecessary as large-scale removal of trees is no longer part of the development plans.

Local councils often come in for a lot of stick, but it’s worth remembering that up and down the country, there are councillors who genuinely care about protecting the environment in the local area, and there are forestry officers who passionately care about trees and will do what they can to stop greedy developers and otherwise unaccountable organisations from removing greenery in order to maximise their profits or their egos. They deserve credit for the work they do. If you see nets on trees, just remember that behind the scenes, council officials are quite possibly trying to stop the trees from being permanently lost as a bird nesting site, or at least ensuring that a decent replacement landscaping scheme is approved before any work starts. Remember: the alternative to tree nets could well be no trees at all.

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