By Debbie James

The cost of dealing with ash dieback is expected to run into thousands of pounds for many farm businesses in Wales as the government starts to issue notices forcing them to remove infected trees from land adjacent to roads.

Trunk road agencies and local authorities are tagging infected trees along roads and cycle paths and ordering farmers on whose land they grow to remove them at their own cost.

They are being issued with Section 154 notices under the Highways Act 1980 to remove trees that may pose a safety risk.

Sixteen notices have been issued so far and others are likely to follow as the scale of the problem unfolds.

When road closure and traffic restrictions are needed, landowners must meet the cost of these controls, advises a Welsh Government spokesman.

Experts estimate this cost to be in the region of £1,000 to £1,500 a day.

“Trunk road agents co-ordinate all works on the network and aim to work with landowners and contractors to be as efficient as possible in maximising traffic management requirements and minimising disruption,’’ said the government spokesman.

With ash dieback continuing to spread, the cost burden on landowners is likely to increase.

Geraint Jones, forestry technical officer at Farming Connect, says the issue is one of great concern among farmers he meets.

“No-one had envisaged the scale of this problem, there has been little preparation and now there is a lot of work to be done and timber to be felled,’’ he says.

In Conwy, former sheep farmer Huw Owen, who sold his flock to establish a wood energy business, is involved in the removal of diseased ash.

He recently felled 24 that were growing on farmland next to the public highway and were considered a safety risk.

Despite his extensive knowledge of trees, he says he was taken aback by how fragile these were.

“Visually, they didn’t look too bad but as soon as we started cutting them down we realised they were very fragile,’’ says Mr Owen, of Garthmyn Isaf, near Llanrwst.

He removed the trees using an excavator fitted with a tree shear.

“The manner in which diseased trees are cut down is a big issue, you can’t climb these trees or use a chainsaw because the timber is very brittle, it would be much too dangerous.’’

Another Conwy farmer has been told he must remove three trees from a highway boundary and, because traffic controls are needed while the work is carried out, it will cost him £1,800.

“He has been issued with an order by the council and has been given 12 months to take them down,’’ says Mr Owen.

Some farmers have agreed deals with timber companies to remove the trees at no cost in return for the wood yet with vast numbers of trees yet to be felled and an anticipated over-supply of timber, deals like this are less likely in the future.

Liabilities can arise if trees or branches fall.

Rory Hutchings, director and head of rural practice at JCP Solicitors, advises that the owner of the land where a tree stands is responsible for the health and safety of those who could be affected by that tree.

He recommends that landowners seek guidance on identifying symptoms of ash dieback from the Forestry Commission, the Woodland Trust and, in Wales, from Natural Resources Wales.

“For those unsure of the risks their trees may or may not present, the advice is to consult a fully insured tree management professional, particularly in light of case law,’’ he recommends.

In one case, decided in 2006, landowners who owed a duty of care to road users from trees abutting the highway were found to be in breach of that duty when a tree had fallen into the road; that tree had a visible structural defect and a concealed fungal defect.

“If a competent inspector had carried out a reasonable and proper examination on the tree, the fungal defect would, on the balance of probabilities, have been detected,’’ says Mr Hutchings.

Landowners must consider public safety and monitor their trees, particularly in areas with high levels of public access.

Legal responsibilities on protection from danger even extend to trespassers.

As Mr Hutchings explains: “It is the landowner’s responsibility to take steps to reduce any risks, this is the case even on private land, where a duty is owed to those who might be trespassing.’’

Reducing risk by cutting back branches or a whole tree and carrying out risk assessments will provide some defence if an incident does occur.