COMPETING in both European and world climbing contests – as well as being the English champion – put Rhys Brace at the top of his tree.

When he was teamed up with Jo Hedger, they won the world chapter category while, as an individual, he came 12th in the world. On top of all that, as a member of the British team, he was in competition all over Europe, ending up as AA and ISA English champion.

But now, back home and down to earth, Rhys has another battle to fight – to try and up the income of the forestry industry. 

He explains: “The pay just isn’t where it should be. After all, it’s a dangerous industry and it deserves more than what could amount to the minimum wage. It’s hard work and deserves a decent reward. And that’s what they get in other countries in Europe.”

He makes the point that that while working in Sweden they earned up to £35 an hour and worked eight to 10 hours a day, while here the rate would be around £150 a day.

Part of the problem, he’s sure, lies in the fact that when he was at Merrist Wood being taught arboriculture there was little, if anything, in the way of business advice. He recalls: “I didn’t get anything like that. Nowadays, the volume of students going through colleges floods the market, driving prices down.”

He draws a comparison with other jobs such as a labourer on a building site, in which someone could pocket £80 to £100 a day with no qualifications at all. “We’re just seriously undervalued.” 

Rhys started out employed with a company for three years and then, as so many do, by sub-contracting for another three years, before forming his own firm – Charterhouse Tree Care Ltd, which now has a full-time staff of seven, supplemented, when needed, by sub-contracters.

Why the name ‘Charterhouse Tree Care’? “I was living in Charterhouse at the time and it sounds high-end,” says Rhys. “Like the school, rather than some play on words or a name about trees that’s just everyday.”

The firm’s based at Guildford in Surrey, which claims to be the leafiest county in the UK and is officially classified as an ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’. The area is dominated by large, luxurious houses with tree-lined gardens and private drives. We meet on a golf course which, according to local rumour, costs members many thousands a year. As we approached the current job, we pass near the garden of a world famous sportsman which, said Rhys, is full of many misdirected golf balls. We move along to where trees are being felled along the boundaries of the course so they won’t handicap any games.

Another frequent job here is ridding trees of ivy which, at first glance, I thought looked easy. Not so, says Rhys. He explains that it has to be severed to near ground level in order to kill it off. While it’s there, it can hide problems like cavities and bark damage. Once it’s gone, he claims, it looks good by both revealing the bark and exposing any previously hidden damage.

Nowadays, the firm has earned the privilege of being a preferred contractor under a scheme run by Hampshire County Council. One such job was to deal with a veteran oak that had developed a crack and needed felling. Rhys’s firm did the inspection and created a monolith, but it was then decided that it posed a danger and so had to come down. It became a five-day job for four of his staff and, in the end, when all of the branches and timber were removed from site, it weighed an estimated 90 tonnes and filled four large timber lorries. “It had to go – it could have caused a lot of damage,” says Rhys.
One development that has helped firms like Charterhouse Tree Care Ltd is the rise of social media.

Rhys says: “It’s become a good learning tool. People are sharing knowledge about good tree work, for example. They can see pictures or videos of how it should be done. And they can see some bad tree work as well.
“People can learn a lot from YouTube and Arb Talk, finding out how they can help each other by knowing what kit people have got. I think it’s become a plus and it’s all very positive.” 

But what’s less than positive for Rhys is the current state of the industry. He says: “It needs tightening up. You really shouldn’t be able to just buy a chainsaw and go door knocking and selling your services on Ebay.

Sometimes, customers think you’re just a glorified gardener. They don’t realise you’ve got kit worth tens of thousands of pounds. I’d just rather not keep clients like that.” Another problem, says Rhys, is the amount of theft that goes on. He said: “I just find it annoying that it’s become so rife.” 

Nowadays, a website called Arb Talk can carry serial numbers, which has proved to be a help in tracking down stolen goods but Rhys contends that is rarely backed up by police, who don’t seem as interested in rural crime.

What it means right now is a lot of extra work in securing kit – even at base. Rhys says: “You have to put a chainsaw in a sealed box you can lock, then put that in a locked barn and put vehicles across the doors and it all takes time, maybe up to half an hour of work time for all the bits of kit. That’s a cost we don’t need.”

He adds: “Having said all that, it’s still a great job. Wouldn’t swap it for the world.”

Graham Mole