Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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The Independent Online

FOR MANY people, trees only really come into focus when they become a problem. Those big green things down the end of the garden or in front of your house stand there, year in, year out, decade after decade. But until a force-nine gale comes along, and they fall on top of the car or the fence, or the extension, no one really takes much notice.

Indeed, neighbours' trees are more likely to attract attention, especially if they block your light, overhang your garden or seem to be contributing to structural damage to your property. At this point, you'll want to call in someone to deal with the problem. But who do you call, and how do you know they are any good?

First, don't use anyone who says they'll come round and do the job for 20 quid. Hiring a cowboy with a chain saw is a bit like employing Jade Goody to teach your children about racism: a Bad Idea. At best, they may prune the tree at the wrong time of year, making it more susceptible to disease. At worst, they may damage it irreparably.

Tree surgery is a dangerous job. It requires skill and training, rigorous safety measures, and insurance, none of which comes cheap. The bigger the tree, the bigger the crew you'll need to deal with it. (Naturally, as an Independent reader, you will want to know that 100 per cent of what's chopped down will be recycled, and even perhaps that the tree surgeon will use biodegradable chain oil if they're working near ponds or streams.)

The first thing you should do is check with your local authority whether the tree is subject to a Tree Preservation Order, or whether you live in a conservation area. If this is the case, it doesn't mean that you won't be able to do anything, just that you will need written consent to proceed, even with pruning.

Your local authority is probably a good place to start anyway, as it will be able to provide lists of approved tree surgeons. Many also offer good advice on their websites, such as avoiding contractors who use the words "lopping" and "topping", and those who come knocking. If your local council can't provide a list of tree surgeons, it will probably point you in the direction of the Arboricultural Association.

This charity undertakes rigorous inspection of contractors on a regular basis (there is no government control) and has a complaints procedure. Its website will find you an approved contractor in your area, and will explain the difference between arboricultural consultants and tree surgeons, or, to give them their formal name, arboricultural contractors.

Basically, the first is the tree expert you would call if you have a query about the health or safety of a tree, its relationship with a property, or anything that might involve reports, surveys or legal issues. The second is the tree practitioner you would call if you want a tree pruned or removed. It is not unusual, says the association, for unscrupulous companies to say that they are listed when they are not, but this can easily be checked on the website or in the hard copy of its directory.

If the problem is a neighbour's tree, the law is pretty clear. You can cut down branches that overhang your property (as long as you don't trespass on their property to do so), but you must offer to return any timber or fruit. (Note that word "offer": don't just chuck branches over the fence - in my experience, finding that your plants have been flattened doesn't lead to good neighbourly relations.)

Neither can you ask neighbours to take action about leaf-fall or sap dripping on to your car - these are viewed, unsurprisingly, as natural occurrences. And even subsidence problems involving tree roots should be dealt with initially by your buildings insurer, rather than by a solicitor.

The courteous thing to do is to have a word with your neighbours before you do anything. You never know, they may be co-operative (although expecting them to offer to contribute towards costs may be taking optimism a little too far). And if they're not co-operative, at least you'll have the satisfaction of having seized the moral high ground. Not to mention the high branch.

The Arboricultural Association ( www.trees.org.uk; 01794 368 717)

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