Early English Tree Ordinance

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Early English forest law took some time to sort out and find a balance that would not be overly severe to the inhabitants, yet would be robust enough to adequately protect the forest.

English law took a comprehensive view of the forest: it was more than just tree cover, it was habitat, it was useful and purposeful, and it was fiercely protected.

Beside hunting penalties, there were tree-specific ordinances, addressing two main elements: waste and assart. Waste was the cutting down of trees, while assart was the tearing out the entire tree: roots and all. Waste allowed for the possibility of the stumps resprouting and the forest re-establishing, while assart was permanent forest loss. Waste was typically the result of someone harvesting timber. Assart was associated with conversion of land to pasture.

Even as waste, by the laws of the forest, is accompted one of the greatest offenses or trespasses that can be done to the vert of the forest, because the same is a felling down, or destroying of the thickets and coverts of the forest, that is to say,the vert or green-hue, be it great wood or underwood, bushes, thorns, or any covert that beareth green leaf: So likewise assart of the forest is the greatest offense or trespass of all other; and there is none like unto it, that can be done unto the vert of the forest. For every assart of the forest doth contain in it a waste and destruction of the vert and covert of the forest.

The penalty for removing trees or clearing land without license was a fine that was proportionate to the scale of the offense.

And for that, you shall understand, that if a man do make a waste of the forest by the destroying of any covert or wood, then the whole wood or place so wasted shall be seized into the king’s hands, and so it shall remain until such time that the owner of the same have repossessed it, and made his fine for that offense.

Early English forest law doesn’t sound much different than some of today’s urban tree ordinances, and was most likely the forerunner to some of our modern protections.

Manwood, John. “A Treatise of the Laws of the Forest wherein is declared not only these laws, as they are now in force, but also the original and beginning of forests, and what a forest is in its own proper nature.” 1665, England.