Professional arboricultural manager John Parker explains that if you look after your trees, they will look after you.
Many public and private spaces, parks and sports grounds contain trees – difficult to miss, yet somehow easy to ignore. Sometimes the person managing the site won’t know whether the trees are his responsibility at all, and many who do acknowledge their responsibilities simply see trees as a liability rather than an asset. Yet there is now a significant body of evidence proving that trees actually bring direct, quantifiable benefits to you, your staff, customers and visitors. However, in order to maximise these benefits while also minimising risk, trees require proper management.
Regard trees as an asset, not a liability
Trees are living things that change over time and, naturally, can lose branches or fail altogether. In real terms, this risk is extremely small and can largely be mitigated by appropriate inspection and management. Any perceived negative aspect of trees must be balanced against the positives; the environmental, economic and social benefits they deliver – collectively known as ecosystem services. This diverse range of benefits includes improving air quality, reducing temperatures, improving mental and physical health, and boosting the commercial viability of shops and businesses, to name a few. For more on this topic have a look at the University of Washington’s Green Cities, Good Health website (depts.washington.edu/hhwb) or the 2015 London i-Tree Eco survey (treeconomics.co.uk/projects/londoni-tree).
Understand your responsibilities
If there is a tree within the boundary of your site then you can be sure that someone will be responsible for it. It is prudent to establish whether this person is you and it is always best to determine this before, rather than after, an incident. It’s hard to do something properly if you don’t know you’re supposed to be doing it in the first place. Check boundary maps; speak to your local authority; ask your manager. The landowner has statutory responsibilities and a duty of care to ensure that his trees do not pose a risk to persons or property. If the worst comes to the worst, ignorance will not be regarded as a viable defence.
Have a reasonable and proportionate system
All trees in or adjacent to areas open to the public need to be inspected, and the frequency and nature of these inspections will vary depending on the situation. Key factors include the age/condition of the trees themselves, public accessibility and the potential target of damage should something go wrong. A tree in a quiet corner of a park will likely require less attention than one next to a major road. It is advisable to have a reasonable system in place that is proportionate to the situation. Keep records of when formal or informal inspections have taken place, who carried them out, what issues were raised and any work which might have been undertaken to mitigate those issues.
Engage your tree officer
Like trees themselves, your local tree officer is a fantastic asset delivering a multitude of benefits. The officers are there to help you manage your trees in the best possible way. Should you need to establish ownership or responsibility for a tree, or if Conservation Area restrictions or Tree Preservation Orders apply, then your local tree officer is likely to be the best place to start. The officer will be able to advise you on best practice and point you in the right direction for more information and assistance. Tree officers are multi-skilled professionals managing multi-functional assets. Make use of them! If you can’t find contact details for your local tree officer then the London Tree Officers Association (LTOA) should be able to help.
Retain and plant trees
Sometimes trees do need to be removed, but remember that many of the ecosystem services they deliver are positively correlated to canopy cover; the bigger the tree, the greater the benefit. Trees take time to establish and grow to their full potential; removing a mature tree and replacing it with a sapling will likely result in a substantial loss of ecosystem services for decades while the replacement tree grows to the dimensions of the original. On top of retaining existing assets, it is also important to plant new trees where appropriate to do so, taking into account the principles of right tree, right place and considering factors such as biosecurity.
The relatively small amount of care that trees require will be more than repaid in future years by the benefits they deliver. No other asset type increases in value from the day of installation for decades to come. Tree management can be a daunting prospect, but plenty of help is available.