Can we still see the forest for the trees? - The necessity of felling trees

Published on: 8 May 2024, 14:08 hrs - Latest update: 14 May 2024, 08:58 hrs

It might seem contradictory to fell trees when we in the Netherlands are constantly hearing that we need to be more sustainable and greener. And yet, sometimes it really is necessary. If the tree is diseased, for instance, or has been damaged by a storm or forms a danger to road safety.

So when we really have to cut trees down, we try to do this as responsibly as possible for flora and fauna alike. Robert Maarschalkerweerd, senior consultant on the living and working environment, green space and sustainability, explains further. Trees may not be cut down indiscriminately.

An ecologist is required to investigate before any standard tree felling. The purpose of this is to check that no breeding birds, protected plants or animals will be affected, and that there will be no disruption to bat navigation. Active nest sites are also protected all year round. 'There is an exclusion zone of 25 m from the nest, except where there is no alternative', says Maarschalkerweerd.

'Contractors that we work with conduct this ecological investigation,' explains Maarschalkerweerd. 'We then check this ourselves and record the information in a test report.’

Maarschalkerweerd continues: ‘Rijkswaterstaat must show that it is complying with legislation. We are accountable to the Netherlands Enterprise Agency. Trees are protected by law. Notification of intention to cut down a tree, for instance, must be published four weeks in advance. It may well take 6 months from notification until the tree is actually removed.'

'Emergency felling, on the other hand, can be arranged within 24 hours. Replanting must take place within 3 - 5 years, depending on the scale of the project.’

Reasons for tree felling

One of the most important reasons for felling trees is to ensure safety. As a result, some species of tree are removed more frequently than others. For instance, poplars are often selected because, although they fit perfectly into the landscape alongside roads, they have a shorter lifespan than other species.

Maarschalkerweerd: 'Specific cultivars of poplar are already fragile and unhealthy after 25 - 30 years. That means that we sometimes must replace entire rows of poplar. That way, we can prevent whole branches being blown off the tree and onto the motorway.'

In addition to safety, problems caused by trees are another reason for removal. This may include protruding roots, overhanging branches or a restriction of visibility. In some cases, it is necessary to give other trees more space to grow.

A tree for a tree: restoring the balance

The same principle applies to all felled trees: a tree for a tree. For each tree that is cut down, a sampling of a similar wood type must be planted on the same site or somewhere else. Rijkswaterstaat owns land on which this can be done, or makes arrangements in this respect with landowners such as municipal or provincial authorities. 

'When we replant, we make sure that the species of tree has the same ecological value', Maarschalkerweerd proceeds. ‘For example, if a hardwood is felled, we replace it with other hardwoods that we think will reach the same standard.'

'We have also experimented with digging up and replanting trees. We did this so as not to disturb a rookery, for example. But the trees all died. When we dig them out and replant them, we are dependent on the weather conditions. The extreme dry periods of the past few years means that tree dieback has definitely increased.'

Recycle, reuse or send to the biogas plant?

It is up to the contractor carrying out the work to decide what happens to trees after they have been felled. In many cases, the trees are chipped and sent to a power station, where they are used as a biomass solid fuel.

The balance in nature

'We are aware of the positive impact that trees have on the living and working environment and traffic management, and that they support the habitat of a wide range of flora and fauna. So as far as Rijkswaterstaat is concerned, we're not going to cut down any trees just for fun.'

'Consultation with local residents is always part of the process: from the ecological investigation to communication with residents. That way, we can strike a balance between people and nature,' says Maarschalkerweerd.