The ethics of tree removal

by | Apr 3, 2018 | Featured Slider, Latest, News

Paul George of Landmark Trading takes on the thorny issue of tree removal – what needs to be considered, and when it’s ethical to fell

By Paul George

Tree removal has sometimes drawn an ambiguous line on ethics – something that has been highlighted more than ever in light of the events in Sheffield. The local government’s Streets Ahead programme, a citywide project aiming to upgrade the area’s roads, streetlights, bridges and structures, has led to widespread tree felling – which local protesters and Sheffield Trees Action Groups (STAG) are trying to stop.

Here, arboriculture has turned into a political and social issue for citizens. Activists use their civil liberties to protest tree felling, as they call for their elected representatives to take action. The clash has recently been underscored by violence, with protesters wearing masks and even threatening arborists. The issue is so hotly debated that even the Environmental Secretary Michael Gove has waded in to discuss alternative solutions to felling the kerbside trees.

In such a situation, where should an arborist stand? Many arborists have found themselves in situations where they were expected to cut down a healthy tree for the benefit of a client. But in cases like Sheffield, the loss of multiple mature, healthy trees seems too much of a waste when alternative routes could be explored and the trees potentially retained. There is always more than one side to a story. Let’s explore all of them, and see how this dilemma could be addressed.

Fighting tree removal

To those who are against tree removal, the common premise is that trees are a precious natural resource. They take decades to reach full maturity and contribute to ecological health and quality of living, providing clean air, mitigating adverse environmental effects (including climate change), conserving energy by cooling streets and cities, promoting wildlife diversity, increasing property values, and adding recreational benefit for the community.

These examples show that trees are of value socially, communally, environmentally and even economically. The cutting down of trees, especially mature trees, can lead to poor air quality and a higher risk of flooding, and could deprive future generations of the health and wellbeing boost they provide.

Some people consider tree removal wrong if it is done without valid justification. Various factors, such as maturity, length of lifespan, overall health, structural integrity and strength, are to be thoroughly reviewed before taking any step. Other activists strongly support the implementation of maintenance solutions over complete tree removal. This includes pruning, the removal of dead or diseased branches, and bracing. They believe that in many cases, cleaning, thinning, raising and reduction are enough to reduce the risk posed by damaged trees.

Supporting tree removal

For advocates of tree removal, there can be benefits that are perhaps overlooked by protesters. For a start, trees are renewable sources and, if removed, new trees can be planted. In some cases, felled trees are replaced with other species that are healthier, more environmentally diverse, better placed, or more aesthetically pleasing.

Some extremists support irresponsible logging practices, putting corporate greed above sustainability. However, when felling is carried out responsibly, trees are sources of useful by-products such as wood and cellulose, and they allow manufacturers to produce commodities such as wood, paper, cleaning compounds, and even industrial explosives.

Some supporters also back tree removal for civic causes. For example, felling makes road widening and infrastructure development possible, and these improvements can result in better accessibility and economic progress in the long run.

There are also cases when weak trees are life-threatening and dangerous to communities. Leaning trees, cracked lower trunks and large, broken limbs are potentially hazardous and may cause injury to people and damage to properties. Removal of decayed and damaged trees is doubly essential before a severe storm strikes.

In terms of landscaping, tree removal is sometimes key to creating an aesthetically pleasing area and delivering clients’ requests. At times, large trees – healthy or otherwise – may obstruct passage and sunlight.

Removal also gets to the root of tree pests and diseases. One example is the oriental chestnut gall wasp, which affects chestnut trees; it causes abnormal growths, called galls, to form on buds, leaves, and petioles. Insecticides are unlikely to be effective because the galls encase the larvae of said pests, protecting them from chemical treatments. The primary solution is to eliminate affected trees, to keep the pests from preying on other trees. In other cases, diseased trees need to be removed to help prevent the disease becoming more widespread.

Weighing it up

For arborists who want to stay ethical, it is about weighing up the benefits and environmental responsibilities against the risks and issues, taking a balanced view, and, if necessary, being prepared to turn a job away if it is clearly unethical to carry out the client’s request. There are good reasons to fell trees, but irresponsible practices are inexcusable.

Verify first if a tree can still be preserved, or if it is no longer wise and cost-effective to maintain it. Check your client’s motivation behind the tree removal. Determining the best course of action is essential before anything else. Here’s a list of criteria to help review a tree’s viability:

  • Species – Some tree types typically have weak wood or shallow roots, are prone to diseases, or are invasive due to prolific seeding. These characteristics allow them to cause damage, making them undesirable. Examples are the black locust, Siberian elm, and willow.
  • Health – A tree should be cut off if 50% of it is damaged. Although an unhealthy tree may survive for years, they often have stunted growth or an abnormal appearance.
  • Structural integrity – Check for large dead branches. While crossed branches can be pruned, a tree with a trunk that is more than 25% dead can be subject to tree removal. If all dead branches are located on one side of the tree, it may become lopsided and unsafe. A hollow trunk also compromises the tree’s strength.
  • Root damage – If an excavation has damaged more than half of the tree’s roots, it can be marked for felling.
  • Environment – Trees that have grown near bodies of water often have shallow roots. On the other hand, removing nearby trees can cause extreme stress to remaining trees if they were to face a sudden change in sunlight exposure, usually causing them to succumb within three to five years.
  • Available space – While trees in the forest grow well in clusters, that will not work for houses and commercial areas. It is best to keep large trees at least 20 feet away. As for those along roads and thoroughfares, they must not interfere with drivers’ and pedestrians’ lines of sight.

Staying ethical

Here are tips for remaining ethical as an arborist:

  • Stay up to date with trends and legislation affecting the industry
  • Adhere to acceptable arboricultural practices and regulatory issuances
  • Be prepared to offer alternative solutions where possible, such as bracing or remedial work
  • Prepare clear and well-written plans and estimates, and communicate them to your customers to avoid confusion.

Some arborists even claim to select their clients, only offering their services to reputable firms and individuals. Whatever your strategy is for staying principled, ensure you practice in a professional and safe manner.


Paul George is the managing director of Landmark Trading Ltd, and has worked in the arboricultural industry for 14 years. Landmark Trading are one the the UK’s leading suppliers of arborist equipment. You can connect with Paul on TwitterFacebook or call Landmark Trading on 01780 482231.