The Memo: Two men face criminal charges over felling of Sycamore Gap tree

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Two men face criminal charges over felling of Sycamore Gap tree

Madeleine Clarke - 6 May 2024

It’s been just over seven months since the Sycamore Gap tree was felled, and police have charged two men for the crime. The tree, which stood alongside Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham in Northumberland, was approximately 150 years old. It had become a popular tourist attraction, visited by thousands each year. The tree’s fairly remote location and the effort required to travel to the site made the felling all the more shocking. Two men have now been charged with criminal damage to both the tree and the section of Hadrian’s Wall that was damaged when the tree fell. They are set to appear before Newcastle magistrates later this month.

The piece of legislation at play here is the Criminal Damage Act 1971, which states that “a person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.” Simply put, the tree belonged to Northumberland National Park, so criminal charges can be brought against the suspects for damaging the park’s property.

However, the tree’s felling has prompted calls for stronger legal protections for trees. Currently, in England, a Local Authority can issue a Tree Preservation Order to protect a specific tree or whole area of woodland from being damaged or felled. This means that anyone looking to fell a tree must receive permission from the Local Authority before carrying out any work involving the tree, with the aim of protecting trees that are considered of value to the public. Tree Preservation Orders also come with a penalty if breached, including a £20,000 maximum fine, prosecution or even a notice to replace any felled trees – that certainly woodn’t be straightforward...

Although it is unclear whether there was a Tree Preservation Order on the Sycamore Gap tree, the case demonstrates that focusing on pursuing penalties for perpetrators after the crime has occurred may be barking up the wrong tree. After all, even if there are legal consequences for felling trees, theres no way to undo the damage. Preventative action and increased awareness of the penalties may be a better way to protect trees. On the bright side, the National Trust collected seeds from the tree, some of which have since sprouted! However, it will unfortunately take over a hundred years for one to reach the size of the original tree.