IT was pretty easy to twig Trevor Witt’s 40th anniversary in the business – he was wearing the T-shirt. And he was even handing out celebratory mugs with freshly brewed coffee to mark the occasion.

Nowadays, the business has grown to where trucks are bought for six-figure sums and the entire range of equipment is prime quality. But the birth of his business is all owed to Dutch elm disease and an axe.

He explained: “Someone offered me the job of taking the trees down, so I got myself an axe for £7.99 and a second-hand chainsaw for £80, got the trees down and made money selling the logs at 20 pence a bag. It was a good start and got me in the frame for becoming a business.”
Starting the firm took a while, Trevor said. “There was a lot to learn about money and machines and customers and all sorts. It was all about that learning and that’s never stopped because I’m still learning today.”

To start with, he worked in the forestry department of Viscount Cranborne’s estate in Dorset. Today, his firm is based near Salisbury in Wiltshire and the work covers the whole of the south of England. He’s so proud of his workforce that on his website he claims they’re the best – and not just in Britain.

As the site puts it: “We consider our tree surgeons to be among the best in the world. We also do our utmost to help and develop the new careers of students coming through the levels. The past two student champions have worked for us and we continue to support them.”

Forestry Journal: Busy felling a chestnut at Longleat.Busy felling a chestnut at Longleat.

Trevor himself had little support from his school teachers. He recalled: “I was hopeless at maths and English and one teacher came up behind me, then put his fist behind me, hard into my back. He told me ‘You’re spineless. Hopeless. You’ll never get anywhere in life’. That just made me determined to get somewhere, to do something, to make my mark.”

So, in May 1979, Trevor formed his firm, helped with advice from his father – a contractor in the neighbouring New Forest.  He recalled: “Dad said it could be a bit touch and go but my first job had been as an apprentice plumber and that was no good for me. I just wanted to be outside, and still do.”

What Trevor still objects to in the trade is the term ‘subcontractor’. He explained: “It’s as if you’ve just picked someone off the street and that’s no good for anyone. Nowadays we form ourselves into teams so we can all work together to get jobs done. It’s all much more like a co-operative.”

But it’s not always work – especially near Christmas when, one year, he found himself paying out hundreds in holiday pay over three days, having long lunches with the lads. Trevor said: “It was expensive but worth it. People still remember it and that’s good.”

What’s not so good is the way some customers behave. Trevor said: “For example, we tend not to do jobs for builders or developers because you put everything into it and then they don’t pay up for 90 days and you just don’t want to be treated like that.”

Forestry Journal: End of the Longleat chestnut.End of the Longleat chestnut.

And there can be customers with a gratitude deficiency: “There was one chap we were working for and it was a big job. We got it all done and on time. We hadn’t smashed his greenhouse or his fence or damaged anything because we’d been careful as usual, then one of our lads just stepped back to look up a tree and he trod on a daffodil – just one flower – and the chap went mad. So, now he’s on my list of baddies. I’ve got that list together over the last 10 years and it’s the only way – you either make excuses that you’re busy or just leave out any calls back to them. They’re just not worth the hassle.”

One house rule for the firm is that climbing finishes at 2pm. He explained: “We make sure we start on time, that everything’s ready and that we’ve got spares to use straight away so that saves time. If we’d gone on until five we couldn’t charge any more so everybody, hopefully, ends up happy. And we go home safe.”

Forestry Journal: Stumpgrinding in Bournemouth.Stumpgrinding in Bournemouth.

Also part of that duty for Trevor is caring for the health of the staff. He said: “What you always have to remember is that climbing does put a strain on the body and, thankfully, there’s now equipment which takes away some of that problem. Certainly I wouldn’t want to do too much of that nowadays and, thinking about it, some of that old equipment looks archaic.” 

One source of pride for Trevor is his son Stuart, now working in Canada, but who in 2003 became the world pole climbing champion. “I used to do it but I was too short, while he’s actually won competitions in England, Europe, Hawaii and even Sweden where climbers are treated like celebrities – a big contrast to China where, we’ve been told, they don’t have arboriculture.”

Another strict rule for the firm is that it regards ecology as a priority. Trevor said: “We recycle, our oil is biodegradable and, for the sake of the rivers if we’re near them, we’ll make sure nothing gets damaged if it gets sprayed.” To add to its green credentials, the firm shops locally, distributes firewood to the needy and makes sure that chippings from the chipper end up as a farmer’s compost.

And for the future? “I think I’ve actually got where I want to be and I’m not sure there’s too many of us like that. It’s good to have a laugh with the lads when it’s right and we do some serious work, earn good money  and then – once again -- just coming home safe.”

Graham Mole