• Articles about law and politics
Law and small woodlands
Kevin Boone, LLB PhD
The private ownership of small woods in England is increasing at an
rate. Many people who can't afford a house with a large garden
find that they can afford a house with a small garden and a plot
of woodland nearby. By "small" here I mean a plot that can
adequately be managed and maintained by a family — typically
ten acres or smaller.
Buyers of small woods are usually neither skilled foresters nor lawyers; and,
while it is clear that woods can (and should) be maintained, it is not clear
what activities other than silvicultural ones are permitted. In particular,
many owners are unaware of what kind of buildings might be allowed in a wood.
Such matters are mostly the domain of planning law. Other uncertainties concern
the responsibility that an owner has to visitors,
and even trespassers, how many trees may be felled, and to what extent
accomodation is permitted.
describes some of the relevant legal issues related to ownership of a small
wood. Although it is intended for non-specialist readers, I do give
specific reference to case law and statute for those who want to follow up.
Throughout the article I use the following abbreviations:
CJPOA — Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994)
CSCDA — Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act (1960)
CRoWA — Countryside and Rights of Way Act (2000)
FA — Firearms Act (1968)
GPDO — General Permitted Development Order (2015)
OLA57 — Occupiers liability Act (1957)
OLA84 — Occupiers liability Act (1984)
TCPA — Town and Country Planning Act (1990)
WCA — Wildlife and Countryside Act (1990)
In law, more than most subjects, the devil is in the details. Court cases do
not necessarily establish broad, general principles, and it is difficult to
advise on a particular situation without a full understanding of the facts.
This article is in no way a substitute for individual legal advice,
and should not be treated as such.
Comments are welcome, as always: for contact details, please
see this page.
Buildings and structures in woodland
It is difficult for a private individual or a family to manage and maintain a
wood productively — even a small one — without some kind of storage for tools
and supplies. A place out of the rain to take tea breaks is also helpful.
Commercial operators will work intensively on a particular site for a short
time, bringing all their tools and supplies in a truck and taking them away
afterwards. This is rarely a practical proposition for owner-managers
who have to work
for a couple of hours on sunny evenings.
Temporary and moveable buildings and structures
Some temporary or moveable structures might not constitute
"development" at all,
as understood by s.55 of the TCPA. As such, they are not subject to
any planning control. So, in all likelihood, a few modest tents
would not be considered development, and would not require planning
approval as buildings. The qualification is necessary because
if the tents amounted to a campsite, then the presence of such a
site might constitute a material change of use, which would bring it
within the scope of planning (more on this point later.)
example of a not-really-temporary temporary structure is a mobile field shelter
for horses. Such shelters are fitted with small wheels or skids, and can
be towed around a field by a truck. A great many are
in use in the UK but,
for better or worse, recent court decisions have doubted whether such
structures are temporary enough to avoid being classed as buildings.
The result has been
to make local planning authorities increasingly confident about taking
action against their owners.
Case law requires planners to have
regard for the size, weight, and degree of attachment to the ground of
but it has never really been clear what the exact decision criteria
are to be.
In Skerritts  2 PLR 102, a large marquee erected in a field
next to a hotel, and used by the hotel in conjunction with its business,
was held to be a building. Although it was not rigidly attached to the
ground and could, in principle, be moved by a few people, the fact
that it had been in place for eight months, and had an electricity
supply, entitled the planners to rule that it was a development.
In Hall Hunter  EWHC 2161 (Admin) agricultural polytunnels
were held to be buildings, although it has to be noted that the land in
question held more than seventy acres of polytunnels, along with
forty or so residential caravans.
What Skerritts, Hall Hunter, and associated cases
all have in common is that the structures in question were not
really temporary or moveable. In Hall Hunter the
polytunnels were assembled by a team of ten contractors, and it was
accepted that they might well be in place for years.
Manufacturers of mobile buildings, and some planning authorities,
gave guidance to the effect that a mobile structure should be moved
regularly — perhaps every six weeks or so — to escape planning
control. However, the more recent
"Woolley Chickens" case  EWHC 2161 (Admin) casts doubt on that
In Woolley the structures in question were mobile poultry sheds.
The were mounted on skids and could, in principle, be towed
(although it has to be noted that they had not, in fact, been moved,
and that an attempt to move them failed.)
On the subject of permanence, Schiemann LJ said:
In this case, the units were permanently in their field, and there was no limit
on the length of time they would remain there – they could be there for years.
[...] The visual and landscape impact of the units
was not affected to any material extent by any periodic changes to their
position in the field.
What Woolley appears to decide is that for a structure to be
moveable, and therefore not a building,
not only must it be
capable of being moved, and not only must it actually be moved, but
its movement must have some consequence. Merely dragging a
temporary building around a field (or wood) as an attempt to escape
planning restrictions will not suffice.
This decision appears to bring under planning control a whole range of
structures that would never previously have been considered relevant: pop-up
sheds, box trailers, semi-permanent tents, and so on. Owners of
small woods might hope
that the kinds of temporary structure they might use would be too
insignificant to be subject to the Woolley judgement,
but in principle that might not be the case.
In passing I should note that Schedule 2, Part 4, Class A of the GPDO
appears to permit temporary buildings even if they have the size,
permanence, or degree of attachment to qualify as development.
"The provision on land of buildings, moveable structures, works, plant or
machinery required temporarily in connection with and for the duration of
operations being or to be carried out on, in, under or over that land or on
land adjoining that land."
One might think that forestry works fall within the remit of
"operations ... carried out .. on land" but it seems not. Although it has been
argued in the courts that "operations" ought to be given its natural meaning,
it seems that "operations" here must be read as "development operations."
Per Sullivan J in Hall Hunter:
"...the polytunnels were not temporarily required in connection with operations, they were erected in connection with the use of the land for agriculture."
Finally, and for the sake of completeness, I point at the forestry, as
an activity, is not considered development at all in the
TCPA. It isn't development to fell trees and stack them up, even if
the stack is the size of a house. Unfortunately, forestry is poorly
defined, as I explain later.
It has to be concluded, then, that any temporary or moveable buildings
used in a woodland must satisfy the test in Woolley, or
be permitted on other grounds. That is, they must be genuinely
moveable, actually moved, and moved for a specific purpose, not
just as a technicality. This might
apply, in principle, even to tents if they are left permanently
Permitted development rights for forestry buildings
In general, a woodland owner who wants to put up a shed or building
for purposes of forestry should not have to resort to showing that it
is not "development" for the purposes of the TCPA.
Schedule 2, Part 4, Class E of the GPDO allows:
The carrying out on land used for the purposes of forestry,
including afforestation, of development reasonably necessary for those
purposes consisting of (a) works for the erection, extension or alteration of a
building; (b) the formation, alteration or maintenance of private ways; ...
There are, as always, restrictions: notably that the development
must not amount to a dwelling. There are no restrictions on the size of
the wood, nor that it be used for commercial purposes.
Class E certainly allows for tool/storage sheds, and has been held in the
past to allow a
provision for personal hygiene. It should allow for
wood storage and drying facilities, but one planning authority
is trying to argue otherwise at the time of writing.
All forms of development in Class E are subject to a 28-day notice
period — you must inform the local authority of your intention to
exercise your permitted development rights; then the planners have 28 days to
object. If they don't object, they are deemed to have no objections.
The planners will almost certainly object if you start building
before they have
stated that they have no objections — bizarrely, although full planning
applications may allow for a retrospective grant of permission,
it seems that permitted development benefits from no such flexibility.
The 28-day notice period is interpreted strictly, and cannot be
extended, even by agreement. Planners are not permitted to try
to extend the period by technical means
(per the Court of Appeal decision in Murrell  EWCA Civ 1367).
However, a recent planning appeal decision supported the planners — even after considering Murrell — who failed to respond
in 28 days, and claimed that they had no onus to do so since development
had already started. Although some people have advised that it is
better to submit notices when the planning department is under-staffed
and unlikely to be able to respond in 28 days, this sounds like bad
advice to me. If the planners are able to use technical breaches of
Class E to claim that they need not respond in 28 days, that leaves them
open to make such claims for non-technical, substantive grounds as
well. while such claims might ultimately not succeed, nobody needs the
hassle of a planning enforcement action, even one which cannot ultimately
A notice under Class E is not a planning application, although the
planners will most likely treat it as one. That is, they will use
the same administrative procedures that they do for full applications.
They will probably publish the plans and consult neighbouring landowners,
even though any potential objections from neighbours are of no
relevance. A positive feature of the Murrell decision is
to reinforce the fact that whether something is "reasonably
necessary" (for agriculture in that case, but presumably for forestry
also) is an objective test, not a matter of planners' discretion.
There had been evidence (including in Murrell itself) of both
planners and planning inspectors — who should certainly know better — acting as if they had a right to refuse agricultural development on
the basis that it was out of line with local development policies.
Planners are allowed to concern themselves with "siting, design,
and external appearance," but not with whether it should be built
or not (provided it is lawful under Class E).
In theory, the planners are not even entitled to object to a notice under
Class E on the basis that they have no evidence the building will
actually be used for forestry. There is a widespread belief — perhaps justified — that many so-called forestry buildings in
small woods are actually used to store barbecues and camping equipment.
However, the Class E notice procedure will almost certainly go more
smoothly, and take less time, if the woodland owner is actually
engaged in forestry work, and can prove it.
Woodland owners should be aware that local authorities can withdraw
permitted development rights completely, by means of the notorious
"Section 4 direction." The effect of such a direction is to make
developments that are normally decided on objective grounds — such
as forestry buildings and paths — discretionary, and subject to
full planning approval. Except in a few instances, such directions
can only be issued after consultation, but purchasers of land already covered
by such directions will be bound by them. Section 4 directions can
be challenged by way of judicial review, but this is ruinously expensive.
If you are considering buying a wood, your legal advisor should be
able to tell you if such a direction is in force (it should show up
on a "local land charges" search.)
Use of woodland
Although it might not be obvious, all land is held to have some specific use or
other. The law sets out (sometimes, and with varying levels of detail) how
land of a particular class may be used.
"Agricultural" and "equestrian" uses of land are different, for example,
although the associated plots of land may themselves be indistinguishable
on the ground — you can't lawfully ride
horses recreationally on agricultural land, although you can
pasture them. Using land for a different purpose than that for which it is
presently used is a material change of use, and subject to
The regular use
of woodland is likely to be "forestry," something which has no clear
definition either in statute or case-law. However, felling and replanting
trees is undoubtedly forestry, as most likely is extraction of timber
and conversion to firewood. The status of ancillary operations like
machining or finishing timber, or creating wooden products, is less clear.
The Millington case,  EWCA Civ 1682, might offer some
general guidance in this area. Owners of a commercial vineyard had
branched out into the production and sale of wine, which the
local planning authority deemed to be a change of use. The question
of law was whether wine-making was an ancillary activity of
viniculture or, more broadly, whether creating a finished product
was ancillary to the production of the agricultural raw material.
The answer seems to be 'yes'.
However, reading the full text of the judgement, I find it hard to avoid the
impression of a certain amount of sentimentality. Per Mantell LJ:
"For generations, in Somerset and elsewhere they have been making cider on the
farm. To suggest that it is not a farming activity or ancillary to the growing
of apples would be an affront to common sense."
Taken at face value the Millington decision
would seem to permit, for example, the construction of a drive-through
burger outlet on a dairy farm. After all, if cider-making is ancillary to
apple-growing, isn't slaughtering and burger production ancillary to
For the moment, anyway, it would seem that woodland activities that
are traditional and give people a warm fuzzy are likely to be considered
"forestry." So charcoal burning and hurdle-making are likely to be
acceptable, bio-fuel distillation perhaps less so.
Change of use and the 28-day rule
Even if an activity amounts to a change of use, it might be permissible
for a short time.
Schedule 2, Part 4, Class B of the GPDO allows:
The use of any land for any purpose for not more than 28 days in total in any
calendar year [...] and the provision on the land of any moveable structure for
the purposes of the permitted use.
There are some restrictions that might be relevant, particularly related
to caravans. However, as there are specific regulations that apply
to caravans in woodlands, the 28-day rule might not need to be applied
to them (see below.)
The 28-day rule permits occasional use of a woodland for
camping, bushcraft activities, recreational shooting, archery,
parties, etc. The 28 days need not be contiguous and, in practice,
the limit is hard to enforce in woodland.
It is not clear to me, and I have been unable to find any relevant
case law, what the relevant boundaries are of "any land"
for the purposes the 28-day rule.
It would seem strange if the entirety of a five-hundred acre plot
were subject to the same limits as a five acre plot, and yet I can't
find any definitive statement that it isn't. The question typically arises
in situations where a farm-owner lets adjacent fields to the organizer
of a car-boot sale, and claims that the adjacent fields have independent
limits (it would be 14 days in this case, rather than 28.) Local
authorities have successfully acted against landowners who do this; but
at the same time I am aware of one individual who has re-registered
a one-acre field as fourteen separate plots, so that he can live in
a caravan on each plot in rotation for 28 days.
It isn't clear to me whom the
registered owners of the sub-plots are (if it isn't the same person), and
this seems a highly technical and contrived way to get around a
regulation. Nevertheless, the last I heard he was still living there.
Caravans and seasonal occupation
The 28-day rule noted above does not apply to "caravan sites," but there
are provisions in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act (1960)
which are similar, and sometimes more generous.
s.3(1) of the CSCDA allows up to three caravans to be sited
for up to 28 days in any year, on a plot of land of five acres or larger,
that has not been built on.
s.8 allows for (in principle) any number of caravans to be stationed
on land used for the purposes of forestry for "a particular season."
There is no recent case law concerning how long a "season" is.
Forestry work isn't really seasonal in the way that, for example,
growing soft fruit is. There seems to be a consensus that a season
is less than a year — logically it must be — but whether it is
two weeks or two months is not at all obvious.
There is a legal definition of a caravan in the 1960 Act, and it is
quite generous concerning size and construction. However, there seems
to be little benefit in siting a really huge caravan, since
there is no clear legal guidance on how long beyond 28 days it may
remain in place.
If the caravan is not used for habitation, or not used often, then
it might be classed as a temporary or moveable building when not
in actual occupation. Some people might find it useful to keep a
caravan for storage, and spend nights in it occasionally. For better
or worse, the Woolley decision casts doubt on whether that would
now be considered lawful if the caravan were permanently kept in
A note on planners, and planning procedures
I think it is fair to say that local planning authorities have a bit
of a reputation for being sticklers for legal technicality.
My favourite more-than-my-job's-worth planning story is how in
2012 not one, but two, planning authorities took action against
people for flying a "Jolly Roger" pirate flag on a pole. It will
probably surprise most people that flags are subject to planning
restrictions at all but, in fact, the relevant legislation is
contained in the The Town and Country Planning
(Control of Advertisements) (England) (Amendment) Regulations (2012).
These regulations contain a long list of flags that may lawfully
be flown (aren't you glad that our tax money is so well spent?)
and, unsurprisingly, the Jolly Roger is not included.
In fairness, though, when it comes to agriculture and forestry,
the planners have a
difficult job. These activities are absolutely necessary for the
health and well-being of the nation, and yet the rural English landscape
is highly valued and deserving of protection.
Moreover, people do sometimes try to exploit the planning system to their own
advantage, and to the detriment of the community.
Nearly all the evidence I have (leaving aside the occasional
Jolly Roger incident)
is that the planners try to discharge their duties fairly and efficiently.
They are nearly always happy to offer advice, free of charge, and are
usually sympathetic when they feel that they can't accept some planning
Most planning decisions can be appealed, and an appeal by way of an exchange of
written documents is usually free of charge. Of course, if you
require legal representation, that will rarely be cheap: I'm told
that a planning appeal where lawyers are involved costs each side
an average of £7000 (in a planning appeal costs
are rarely awarded against the losing party.)
Appeals are heard by a
ministerial body, the Planning Inspectorate. Unfortunately, appeals can take
six months or more to be heard, so in many cases it might be quicker to
negotiate with the planners, so far as that is possible.
Planning authorities are entitled to take enforcement action against a person
whom they believe to be in breach of regulations; such action might demand
the removal of an offending building or the cessation of some activity.
These actions can also be appealed, but failing to either comply or appeal
is a criminal matter, and subject to fines. Surprisingly, planners are
entitled to enter private land without permission to check for unlawful
development or activity. In reality, it is more often neighbours who
monitor planning breaches.
The rules on tree felling are set out in the Foresty Act (1967) and
its ammendments, and are generally not contentious.
In short, you need a licence from the Forestry Commission to fell
more than five cubic metres, or sell more than two cubic metres,
of trees per calendar quarter, with a few exceptions. Exceptions that might be
relevant to small woodlands, and where there are no volume limits include
Tree diameters are measured at "breast height," which is now standardized
as 130cm above ground.
Estimating tree volume is difficult, and it's easy to see how disputes
might arise in principle about whether, for example, a particular bole
is a stem or a branch — there are no restrictions on lopping branches.
In practice, however, these problems seem not to have given rise to
Many small woodlands are under-managed and overgrown, and it's unlikely
that family management will exceed the licence-free limits for felling, bearing
in mind that there is no limit on the number of trees less than 10cm
diameter that may be thinned. However, it's not particularly difficult
to get a licence from the FC to fell more trees if the work needs
to be done, or if there is a plan for replanting.
Although rare in woodlands, trees might be subject to a tree preservation
order (TPO) issued by the local authority, and to fell such a tree is
an offence. TPOs are local land charges, and should show up during
the purchasing process — your legal advisor should be able to tell
you if TPOs are in force (unlikely).
- Trees of less than 8cm diameter
- Trees of less than 10cm diameter for the purposes of thinning
- Coppice poles of less than 15cm diameter
- Any tree that is obstructing authorized building work
- Any tree that is dangerous, or causing a nuisance
Safety and legal liability
As the owner/occupier of a woodland, you bear some responsibility for
the safety of other people on your land, whether they are present with
or without your permission.
Liability to visitors
The guiding legislation here is the OLA57, particularly s.2,
which is a refreshingly clear, and worth
reading in its entirety. The key statement is this:
The common duty of care is a duty to take such care as in all the circumstances
of the case is reasonable to see that the visitor will be reasonably safe in
using the premises for the purposes for which he is invited or permitted by the
occupier to be there.
Notice that the word "reasonable" occurs twice in this one sentence, and
what it amounts to in each case is a matter for the courts.
The main risk posed
to visitors to woodlands (and probably trespassers) is from falling
branches; although entire trees do fall, this is a very rare
cause of injury. Falling branches, sadly, account for a significant
number of injuries and fatalities. There is a good deal of case
law concerned specifically with falling branches.
The landmark case regarding duty of care in these circumstances probably
remains Noble  2 KB 332: no liability attaches in situations where
reasonable inspection would not have revealed a defect in an apparently-healthy
tree. A similar line was taken in Caminer  AC 88: here the
tree owner was deemed to be negligent in not inspecting the tree at
all, but was ultimately not liable because a reasonable inspection
would not have revealed the defect.
The McLellan case, (2005 QBD (TTC), Bristol, unreported) suggests
that inspection need not be particularly thorough or expert, so long as it is
reasonably regular. This decision is supported by Atkins v Scott (2008,
unreported) where trees were inspected from the ground, and the defect
was too high up to be noticed.
Nearly all the case law suggests that a woodland
owner must inspect trees in regions where visitors may be lawfully present,
except perhaps in very remote locations. The tree owner may escape
liability in a case where no reasonable inspection would have revealed
the defect, but it would not be wise to rely on this.
Most court rulings have held that inspection need not be very onerous,
nor carried out by experts. A dissenting voice is that of
MacDuff J in Poll  EWHC (QB) 4BS50394:
Nevertheless in my judgement a level two inspector would have been
looking for [a concealed fungal bracket]. He would have appreciated
that decay could lie beneath this overhang [...] It would have been
imperative to feel carefully into the space — to scrape and discover.
I don't believe Judge MacDuff is asking us to "scrape and discover"
in every tree — this would be an impossible burden. However, he does
seem to be expecting us to be able to identify the type and configuration
of tree that might harbour a defect that needs to be examined
thoroughly. Not only is this ruling somewhat out of line with
most authorities, it would be extremely impractical to implement.
The overwhelming majority of people who work with trees are not
expert arboriculturalists, and there probably are not enough experts
in the country to inspect every tree that might offer a hint that
it is merited.
In the last few years, some tragic and contentious cases have been settled
out of court. While nobody would wish any further grief to the families of the
victims, this does mean that a number of legal questions — such
as the degree of expertise expected in a person who inspects trees
for safety — remain unanswered.
Although it won't affect many woodland owners, a person who is on
your land under a "right to roam" provision
is not a "visitor" (s.3(1) CRoWA) — the CRoWA makes it clear that
its provisions are not intended to create an additional burden for
landowners. However, there could still be
liability for deliberate or reckless mismanagement.
A person using a public footpath in or alongside a wood will probably be
treated the same as a person on a highway, and a visitor's duty of care is
owed. Similary, a person exercising a legal duty to visit the land, such as a
planning inspector, is a visitor.
It is often glibly stated that no liability attaches to
the owner of a healthy tree that causes injury, and this may be
true. In practice, however, trees can be unhealthy in ways that are
hard to detect; land owners would do well to institute
some policy of regular inspection, and it would be very risky to
ignore a tree that was obviously diseased or dangerous.
Liability to trespassers
According to the OLA84, a duty of care is owned to trespassers if
As ever, the presence of so many instances of the word "reasonable"
makes interpretation difficult.
Whether there are risks in a woodland is something that
should be fairly obvious
on inspection of the land. The main risk, as with legitimate
visitors, is likely to be from unstable tree branches;
but trespassers might be exposed to dangers that legitimate
visitors never encouter — a trespasser might not keep to
paths, for example.
In addition, whether there are likely to be trespassers should also
be fairly clear. If the woodland contains, or borders, a public
footpath or some other clear track, and is not in the remote highlands
of Scotland, then it's a fair bet that people will wander in, either
nefariously or innocently. Innocent trespassers are
often dog-walkers and children: neither are no respecters of property, and
where dogs go you can be sure their owners will follow. Children
seem to be drawn to the forbidden and dangerous.
The real problem in interpretation of the OLA84
is that of deciding whether the risk is one
which a land-owner ought to protect trespassers from. I've
certainly heard it argued that the owner of a wood need not be expected to
protect trespassers from any risks at all. Sadly, the usual victims
of this kind of thinking are children,
and experience has shown that courts take a dim view of landowners who
allow children to come to harm, even as trespassers. For both
legal and ethical reasons, woodland owner ought to take some trouble
to insure that the wood is safe, both for wanted and unwanted visitors.
- there are reasonable grounds to think risks exist;
- there are reasonable grounds to think that trespassers will be
exposed to those risks; and
- the risks are such that some protection ought reasonably to be afforded.
Despite the implications of the Government's occasional publicity, there
are no legal restrictions on private individuals using
chainsaws for private purposes. There is no requirement for insurance,
nor for any training. Most dealers will sell you a chainsaw without any
evidence that you even know which end to hold.
There are, of course, approved training schemes,
and they are not particuarly expensive — cheaper than a funeral,
If your incompentent handling of a chainsaw causes injury or damage, then the
usual law of negligence would apply. Of course, that would true if you used a
hand saw, or even a nail-file; but you have much less time to rethink your
felling strategy once the chainsaw starts to bite.
Quadbikes and similar vehicles can be very useful in woodland management.
Within the wood, they are subject to the same considerations as
chainsaws: you need no particular training or insurance, but both are
advisable. Quadbikes are a rising source of fatalities among agricultural
workers, and almost all the fatalities so far could have been avoided by the
use of proper safety equipment.
An additional consideration is how to get your quadbike to the wood.
No special regulations apply to transporting it on a trailer: you can tow
750 kg with an ordinary car driving licence. Many quadbikes are, or
can be made, road legal; they will be registered with
the DVLA either as private light goods vehicles, or light agricultural
vehicles. It's very difficult to change the registration class, so
think carefully when you buy. Road-legal quadbikes from
motorcycle dealers will usually be registered as light goods vehicles;
from agricultural plant suppliers usually as agricultural vehicles.
If you are buying new, then you may get a choice but, as it's
essentially irrevocable, choose carefully. In both cases,
a standard car driving licence is all that is required, although
quadbikes often have motorcycle-style controls, which will be
unfamiliar to car drivers.
An advantage — probably the only advantage — of agricultural registration
is that such vehicles are exempt from road tax and MOT testing. It should
go without saying that this form of registration is designed for vehicles
whose road usage extends to crossing from one field to another. Using such
a vehicle for any other purpose is likely to be unlawful. There are
probably restrictions on the number of road miles that may be covered
in one journey, although I have searched the relevant legislation in
vain for a definite ruling.
Private light goods vehicles require MOT testing with the same schedule
as cars, and are subject to tax, £60 per year at the time of writing.
However, there are no restrictions on road usage, beyond those that
an insurer may impose. A quadbike registered in this way will probably
find a wider market when it is sold.
Public liability insurance
Unless the woodland is a workplace where people are employed, there is
no legal obligation for the owners to take out public liability insurance.
However, such insurance need not be expensive, and can provide a certain
amount of piece of mind.
Most insurers will expect land-owners to behave "reasonably"
(there's that word again), and an obligation to do so is likely to
be part of the contract. So insurance by itself does not relieve the
woodland owner of the need to inspect trees, or to stack logs
safely, or use fencing or signage where appropriate. If the owner
does all those things diligently, then it could be argued that there is
no need for insurance, as the owner will not be liable for accidents.
However, as the case law shows, it is not easy to predict the way a
judge will rule when "reasonableness" is at issue.
Be aware that most woodland insurance that is affordable is negotiated on a
block basis, with fairly standard terms, the costs being shared equally among
subscribers. A policy of this sort is unlikely to cover high-risk activities
like shooting, or chainsaw operation.
Access and rights of way
Small woods are usually subject to private rights of way,
and often to public rights of way as well.
Private rights of way
Small woods are usually subject to easements of access — both benefit and burden. A 'benefit' of such an easement is a right to
cross somebody else's land to get to your own; a 'burden' is a right for
somebody else to cross your land. An easement of access may be
for foot traffic only, or include some measure of vehicular access.
Easements will be negotiated when
the land is sold, and the agreement takes the form of a covenant.
Like most covenants, easements of access 'run with the land.' That is, although
they may be created in an agreement between buyer and seller, they will
typically be binding on future owners. If your land has the burden of
an easement of access, then it will be unlawful (but not a criminal matter)
to obstruct it. In many cases, the easement will be accompanied by
a covenant of maintenance — the person with the benefit of the easement
undertakes to share the maintenace of the path with the owner of the land
it crosses. Often the exact distribution of maintenance costs is left
deliberately vague, because they are difficult to predict. This
can cause some contention when the woodland is sold, and it is advisable
to keep a record of what maintenace has, in fact, cost — if anything.
Public rights of way
Public rights of way are in a different legal category from private easements of
access. The legal framework is set out in the tortuously complex
Highways Act (1980) and its various ammending statutes.
Obstructing a public right of way is a criminal, not a
civil, matter. Local highways authorities can prosecute, or take remedial
action at the land-owner's expense, if a public right of way if obstructed.
Many small woods are crossed or bordered by public footpaths, and owners should
be aware of their responsibilities. In principle, rights of way shown on
Ordnance Survey maps are not conclusive — the local highways authority
maintains the "definitive map" of rights of way. It is very rare for recent OS
maps to be in error about such matters, however, although the limitation of
map scale might make precise location difficult.
It should be obvious that a public right of way should not be
blocked by locked gates or walls, but allowing vegetation to obscure the path,
or disturbing the surface, could also amount to obstruction.
The width of a particular public right of way can be contentious.
The local authority should record the width, if it is known, on the
definitive map; but most often it is unknown, or vague
("Varies from 1m to 5m"). Government guidance suggests
that footpaths should be cleared to a width of 1.5m, and bridleways
Although landowners may not obstruct public rights of way,
they are entitled to make them unappealing, so long as that does not
amount to an obstruction. There is a public footpath along the
Chess Valley in Hertfordshire that has been constrained to a minimum
width with barbed-wire fencing, with "keep out" notices every
few yards. Dropping piles of dung next to footpaths is another
favourite tactic in some regions. Although these manoeuvres are
un-neighbourly, they are not unlawful.
In any wood that is actively being managed, particularly for extraction
of timber, it is likely that tracks will develop — by accident
or design — leading in and out of the wood. Such tracks are often
more obvious, and more appealing to walk on, than any public
footpaths that existed previously. In such situations, it might
be advisable to
place polite notices indicating where the footpaths really are.
This is particularly important if the wood contains hazards that a
casual wanderer might not notice.
Although public rights of way are classified by use — footpath,
bridleway, etc. — thoses uses apply only to users, not to owners,
of the path.
It sometimes surprises walkers that public footpaths actually
belong to somebody; but this should really be obvious — if the land had no owner, there would be no need for a
particular right of way. So the fact that a piece of
land you own is signposted "public footpath" does not mean
that you cannot drive a car, or even a lorry, along it if you wish.
Of course, you should do this carefully if you have to do it at
all, because walkers and horse-riders will probably not expect to
encounter vehicles on a footpath. Driving a car on a footpath with
the intention of intimidating walkers could be seen as an
obstruction, as well as an assault at common law. If the vehicle
actually makes contact with another person, then that would amount
to a battery, or even a more serious offence, depending on the
Many animal species have some legal protection, and some of these species
regularly found in British woodlands. The governing legislation is
predominantly the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), as ammended.
Broadly, it is an offence intentionally to kill or capture a
protected animal, or to interfere with its breeding sites.
In nearly all cases a licence can be obtained to circumvent the
protection if there really is no alternative but, in general,
such measures are unlikely to be needed in woodland management.
Bats, badgers, dormice
It is an offence under the WCA intentionally to capture, kill, or
injure bats, badgers, and dormice, or interfere with their habitats.
Although many woodland owners regard deer, especially Muntjac, as vermin, they
can not legally be trapped or hunted outside of designated seasons, or at
night. There are hugely complicated rules about which species can be hunted,
how, and when; anybody who needs to do this should take expert advice. Unlike
in large commercial plantations, owners of small woodlands can probably protect
young trees from deer more easily by passive means (shelters, etc) than
extermination; and firearms are likely to create a serious hazard to
neighbouring landowners in a wood that is only a few hundred yards across.
All wild birds have some measure of protection — even
crows, which are generally regarded as pests. As well as killing
the birds themselves, it is an offence to destroy a nest
intentionally, or take eggs.
It is probably not unlawful to fell a tree that turned out to contain
an active nest that could not be seen, but reckless disregard for
bird nesting could still be problematic.
In practice, there are other good reasons to do most tree felling in autumn
or winter, when the risk of destroying an active nest is small, so
problems should not normally arise. So-called "Schedule 1" birds are
subject to more stringent protection, and damage to nests that falls
short of destruction could be prosecuted. With the possible exception
of the barn owl, which sometimes roosts in trees, these birds are
unlikely to be encountered in an English woodland.
Some birds may lawfully be trapped or shot in particular ways at
particular times — pheasants, partridge, etc.
A "general licence" is issued anually containing
a list of species that can be killed without restriction for the
protection of agriculture — typically this list includes crows.
However, the legal implications for using firearms in woodland
are outside the scope of this article.
Great crested newts
Great crested newts are
amphibious, and sometimes found around woodland ponds. Unless you have the
expertise to survey for these animals, pond management work should normally be
carried out in the winter, when they are unlikely to be present.
Despite the number of signs suggesting the contrary, trespassers (as such)
cannot be prosecuted. Plain trespass is not a crime; it is, at most,
a tort — a wrong for which a remedy may exist in the civil
Tthree distinct classes of trespassers typically cause problems for
woodland owners: casual trespassers, poachers, and squatters.
In any large wood, or any wood that is near a public right of way, some
measure of casual trespassing is inevitable. Trespass of this sort is
usually either unwitting ("I didn't know it wasn't a footpath"), done out of
general curiosity, or to take a short-cut. Most owners of small
woodlands are proud of their woods and happy to show them off; but
it is legally perilous to sanction trespass: the
duty of care owed to an authorized visitor is much higher than that
owed to a trespasser, and regular trespassory use of land can, in the
end, create rights for the trespasser.
It will almost certainly be impossible to interest the police in trespass
of this sort — by itself it is not a crime. However, there are a few
circumstances in which the police might take action.
In practice, none of these situations is common, and occasional trespass
may have to be tolerated. It can be controlled by signage, regular working
in the wood, and polite but firm guidance to trespassers. In principle,
a right exists at common law to remove trespassers using "reasonable force,"
but it would be a brave, or foolhardy, landowner who tried to use it
against unauthorized visistors who are doing no harm.
To prevent regular trespass turning eventually into a right of
way (which generally takes a minimum of twenty years), the landowner
should take steps to indicate that no right of way is intended — these steps might include fencing and signage. A procedure is
defined in s.31(6) of the Highways Act 1980 by which a landowner
can file a declaration that no public right of way is intended — the local council should be able to advise on how to invoke
- The trespasser has a firearm (s.20(2) of the FA). This is the offence of
armed trespass, whether or not the gun is fired. In principle, possession
of a knife on another person's land without authority is also an offence
but, unless the trespasser is actually brandishing the knife, it is
unlikely to be detected.
- The trespasser intends to intimidate the lawful occupier or disrupt
a lawful activity (s.68 of the CJPOA). This measure is mostly directed
against "hunt saboteurs" and similar protest groups.
- The trespasser causes damage to the land or property of the owner.
This amounts to criminal damage, and possibly burglary if buildings
are involved. The damage need
not be intentional, but must at least be reckless.
Poaching is entering another person's land to take game animals or
rabbits. There are many specific offences related to
poaching, and a poacher might also be committing theft, armed
trespass, and wildlife offences. For better or worse,
"lamping" for rabbits, often from public footpaths, is quite common
around woodland. The police have wide powers to deal with poaching,
and should certainly be involved if it is suspected.
Small woods do not, on the whole, make good places to set up an unlawful
dwelling. Access is often poor, there are usually no services, and woods
are cold, dark, and gloomy at night. Nevertheless, it does happen.
The police will usually take no action against squatters who are
living peaceably alonside legal owners; indeed they have no particular
powers to do so if no crime is being committed. However, there is a power
under s.61 of the CJPOA to remove them if they
park more than six vehicles, threaten the legal occupiers, or
cause damage. This power is discretionary, and normally exercised only
communities and the like, that are cause widespread disturbance.
The 'proper' procedure for removing squatters is to seek a
possession order from the County Court, demanding their eviction. If
you act quickly — generally within
28 days — and the squatters are in a building,
you can ask for an interrim possession order from
a county court. If granted by the court, the IPO must be served on
the squatters with two days. Failure to comply with an IPO — generally
by leaving the land — is a criminal office, and the police might
take action. In practice, however, woodland squatters are usually
not occupying buildings, so the IPO procedure is inappropriate.
The full possession procedure is time-consuming and expensive, particularly
if legal representation is required. In principle, if the order is granted
then an order of costs may be made against the squatters; in practice,
the squatters will probably not pay, or be unable to.
Owners of woodland — or any open land — are between a rock and a hard
place when squatters move in. Peaceable squatters are difficult to
remove lawfully but,
if they are not removed, the land-owner is probably in breach of
planning regulations. There have been situations where local authorities
have taken legal action against land-owners for failing to remove
squatters, rather than taking action against the squatters themselves.
Worse, after a period of time — typically ten years — squatters can
begin proceedings to claim ownership
of the land under adverse possession. So however well-disposed and
woodland owner might feel, it is imperative to take action to remove
With this situation as it stands, it is hardly surprising that there are
organizations which will attempt to remove squatters without legal
action. These businesses work on the borders of legality: there is a
common-law right to remove trespassers, even using reasonable force, but
"reasonable" is hard to judge correctly, and it takes considerable force
to remove a group of people who really don't want to go. Forcible
evictions will usually require the police to be present, and will be
Squatters, like more casual trespassers, are likely to be discouraged
from entering land that is clearly private, and obviously occupied.
Living in a wood
From earlier discussion, you probably won't be surprised to find that
it is very rare indeed for anybody to get official sanction to live
in his or her own wood, in a building or in anything else. Ironically, it
is easier to live as a trespasser on somebody else's land than lawfully on your
The few occasions where
approval has been granted for a dwelling have been subject to
strict conditions — most onerously that the building may not be transferred
to a new owner.
At any given time, however, a few people are living year-round,
in their woodland, in dwellings of various degrees of permanence. They
get away with this either because nobody notices, or because the planners
lack the resources or incentive to challenge them, or they are openly
deceptive. It is permissible to live in a caravan on woodland for
28 days for any purpose, and probably longer for forestry work; some
people seem to be able to stretch this 28 days until it becomes
more-or-less permanent. In a few striking cases, whole families have
lived in caravans, and been an established part of the local
community — paying local taxes, attending schools, and having
voting rights — without being challenged by the planners.
If a person can occupy a substantially-completed dwelling for four years,
or a caravan for ten, then the planning authority loses the right
to take enforcement action. Recent statute law and court decisions have
clarified, however, that such occupation must be open. People have
gone to great lengths to try to exploit the four-year limitation
period — notoriously, a Surrey farmer constructed a mock-Tudor
folly behind a forty-foot wall of straw bales. At the time of
writing, he has exhausted his legal routes of appeal, and is demolishing
Even if you can use the four-year or ten-year limitation periods, and even
if you can get the local planning authority to issue a Certificate of
Lawful Development, that does not create a right to build anything else.
The planners might not be able to prevent you living in your caravan or
tin shack after that time, but that doesn't mean that you can lawfully
build a house on the same site.
It should not be a problem for the owner of a small wood to construct such
modest buildings as are necessary for its upkeep, provided that the proper
notice procedure is followed carefully. The long-term use of semi-permanent
structures, rather than buildings, is becoming increasingly open to challenge.
Woodland may be used for non-forestry purposes for a certain amount of time
each year; this is helpful because 'forestry' has no clear legal definition.
Owners of woodland have a duty of care to lawful visitors and even,
to a lesser extent, to trepassers. It is wise to look for, and mitigate,
obvious hazards, particularly diseased trees. Insurance might be
appropriate in some cases.
Many small woods contain, or border, public rights of way, and there
is a duty on land-owners to keep them unobstructed.
Care must be taken to avoid harming certain animal species, notably
bats, badgers, dormice, wild birds, and great crested newts.
Trespassers of various kinds are a feature of small woods, and it may
not be possible to prevent trespass completely. However, trespass should
not be blithely permitted, as it can eventually create rights for the
trespasser. Signage, fencing, and evident usage by the owner might
reduce the amount of trespass.
While many people hanker to live "off grid" in the middle of a wood,
there are few legal ways to do this for an extended period of time.