Sorting out a thorny question
Our barrister gives advice on liability for trees and their branches.
Question: My farm adjoins two others. In a number of my fields I have white thorn and ash trees which have grown up through the ditches and I am concerned about my responsibility in the case of these trees and bushes. Also, one of my neighbours has an old beech tree which overhangs onto the roadway. I have heard about accidents where large branches have caused serious injuries to passers-by and I would like to cut it back, however, the landowner does not want to cut the old tree. Is there anything I can do to prevent accidents?
Answer: Liability for trees and their branches, as well as over-hanging hedges, are issues faced by almost all farmers at some point. The law is quite clear on this subject in that the land owner or occupier, that includes farmers renting land, are responsible for ensuring that hedges do not encroach and effect their neighbours; they must also ensure that falling branches from trees don't pose dangers.
In relation to the cutting back of ditches and trees, Birdwatch Ireland recommend that hedges should not be cut back any later than March 1 due to birds nesting and also there are a number of species that nest well into August.
But it is lawful to cut or grub isolated bushes or clumps of gorse, or to mow or cut isolated growths of fern in the ordinary course of agriculture at any time.
However, if you are an applicant to schemes like the Basic Payment Scheme you may be restricted in taking actions to cut/burn hedges.
In relation to your neighbour's tree which overhangs onto the roadway, local authorities and Electric Ireland have powers to deal with this. They can give notice to the owner requiring them to cut or prune the tree. If the owner fails to comply, they have authority to carry out the work and charge the owner.
You should not cut the tree yourself as first, you may need a licence to do so, and second, it is not on your property and third, if you interfered with the tree and it fell or caused damage as a result, you may be responsible for this damage.