Bad weather sparks more garden closures

Closed gates: impact of weather
Closed gates: impact of weather

Historic and botanic gardens are closing more often because of bad weather - a trend that some argue is linked to managers becoming more risk averse amid fears of having to pay compensation if visitors are injured by falling branches.

Kew, RHS and Forestry Commission sites closed up to four times more often because of bad weather in 2013 compared to 2012 and 2011 (see box).

University of Middlesex professor of risk management David Ball, who contributed to the National Tree Safety Group's 2011 guidance on "common sense risk management of trees", said health and safety in gardens is getting out of control.

"There is a major struggle in society between people who take a very narrow view of safety and would therefore tend to close public gardens when there's a breath of wind and people who say there are benefits of public gardens and we ought to keep them open as much as possible.

"The increase in closures could imply more people becoming risk averse or it may be they are more anxious because of events and people being sued and prosecuted. That is understandable but socially undesirable. If organisations take very risk-averse positions public life is going to suffer.

"The anxiety is someone will get killed or injured but what is not given due consideration are the health benefits of people going to the countryside or gardens. People see safety as paramount, but I'd say it is just one consideration.

"Management procedures mean gardens close after putting tick-box wind speed on forms on what was normally left to people's judgement. But systems are generally flawed. Trust in professionals has been lost."

There has been a string of high-profile court cases about tree deaths in recent years. In 2011, the High Court decided the National Trust was not to blame for the death of 11-year-old Daniel Mullinger, killed by a falling branch at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk in 2007.

Compensation was paid after the death of Sophie Howard, 13, killed by a falling branch in Peterborough's Bretton Park in 2011. At Kew Gardens in September 2012, Erena Wilson, 31, died when hit by a falling branch. The inquest is due to resume early this year. On average, six people are killed and 55 seriously injured a year because of "tree failures".

An RHS representative said: "We have rigorous assessment processes in place, always monitor wind speeds and take into account Met Office warnings when making the call about whether to close gardens."

A Forestry Commission representative added: "Sites will take the decision to close based on a variety of factors, including wind speed and accessibility, but will always have visitor safety at the core of their decisions."

National Trust Charlecote parks and garden manager Lisa Topham said Met Office predictions of 52mph winds meant the garden had to shut. The central wind-closure policy came in three years ago but individual gardens can review it and tailor it to their site.

Batsford Arboretum head gardener and deputy director Matthew Hall said: "Our system is simple. We're guided by the forecast. We have to shut for up to 10 days a year - slightly more in the past couple of years because of worse weather. The weather has been very unpredictable and you can't guarantee a tree is not going to come down, so it's sensible to close. We are more aware of tree accidents and if we weren't we wouldn't be doing our job properly."

Penshurst Place head gardener Cory Furness added: "You have to be more aware of the risk now because of the significant risk of litigation. You have to be aware for your company's sake as much as anything. We are reviewing our high-risk trees. One old lime blew over - it went in the right direction but if it was another time of year it could have gone the wrong way - so we're reassessing these trees."

Gardens consultant Alan Sargent said: "People are using more common sense. By and large, people try and keep open. Some places can't because there's too much of a risk. But it should be down to the head gardener or gardens manager to decide."

Severe weather - Public garden closures

Kew did not close because of bad weather in 2011, shut for one day in 2012 and for two days in 2013.

The Forestry Commission's Alice Holt site was closed for four days in 2013 because of high winds and for two days because of snow in both 2011 and 2012.

Its Whinlatter site also closed for a day in 2013 because of high winds, having not closed for that reason in either 2011 or 2012.

RHS gardens closed for six days in total during 2013, compared with one day in 2012 and one day in 2011. Wisley, Harlow Carr and Hyde Hall all closed for two days each.

Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh closed for three full and three part days in 2013. In 2012 it was three full and one part day and in 2011 it was one full and 11 part days.


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