‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree,’ wrote the American poet Joyce Kilmer. On the downside, he neglected to add that it’s a common enough cause of disputes between neighbours too.
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Who owns a tree?
The tree belongs to the person in whose garden it grows.
What about overhanging branches that reach into my land?
If the branches and or roots of a neighbouring tree spread into another property, they still belong to the tree-owner.
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Does that mean I can’t cut them down?
You can cut back any overhanging branch that comes into your property. However, the cut branch(es), and any fruit or flowers attached to the branch(es) remain the property of the tree owner and must be returned.
If the tree has a Preservation Order on it then you cannot cut/pare any branches. Your local council will have a list of preservation orders.
Can I keep windfallen fruit?
Technically fallen fruit still belong to the owners. To avoid any misunderstanding, ask if you can keep them.
What if I don’t want them? I certainly don’t want the fallen leaves.
It is not incumbent on the tree-owner to sweep them up, nor collect any fallen fruit.
What should I do with the trimmed branches?
Ironically, even though the branches belong to your neighbour, you cannot simply throw them back over his fence. That could be deemed to be fly tipping of garden waste. Advise your neighbour that you intend to burn them or take them to a recycling centre.
How far can I trim the branches back?
You can cut branches and/or roots back up to the limit of your property, your garden fence, say. There you should stop.
You are not allowed to go into a neighbour’s garden without permission to cut a tree back. Nor can you lean over into his garden to cut back the ‘offending’ branch – you will be trespassing. If you cut the branch back beyond the limit of your property, into the very trunk itself, say, you could be liable for damage or trespass.
What if the tree is dangerous?
If you believe the tree to be a threat to people or your property (it overhangs a shed or greenhouse, for example, or is rotting and in danger of harming someone) then talk to your neighbour about it.
If there is disagreement about the tree’s condition, contact your local council.
Who is liable for pruning costs?
If it is a large and/or potentially hazardous task, possibly involving a tree surgeon, then talk to your neighbour about the possibility of cost-sharing.
What if the roots are damaging my/our shared drains?
Contact your water company for them to assess possible/potential damage. The tree-owner may well be liable for the cost of repair if damage has been done.
Can I take action if the roots are damaging, or potentially damaging to a wall, fence or shed?
You can chop back roots to the limit of your property boundary. This is a situation which needs to be tackled quickly. Root damage can lead to soil drying out and therefore possibly affecting the foundation of a building or wall. If you are concerned, then ask the opinion of an arboreal expert and/or surveyor.
This in turn could lead to significant claims for damages if the value of the property is affected detrimentally.
As in all these tree-related matters, an early friendly word with your neighbour pointing out the (potential) problem and your proposed resolution to it, is always better than a heated, blame-attaching row later on.
What if a neighbour's tree is blocking the the sun?
If your property had been receiving daylight for 20 years but has since had that light blocked by a growing tree, for example when a tree grows so large that it stops sunlight reaching your window, you may be protected by the Rights of Light Act 1959.
You may be able to apply to the courts for daylight to be restored, although if there is a Preservation Order on the tree you would only be allowed to trim it back when it becomes dangerous.
Is it something I can claim on my insurance?
The responsibility for the tree and any damage it may cause is that of the tree-owner. If his tree damages your property then he is liable. Should the situation become a legal dispute then you may be covered for your legal costs.
Do insurance companies provide garden/tree specific policies?
Most home/building policies contain an element of garden-related cover. If you have any concerns check with your provider who may suggest additional cover.
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