After a 25-year career in the RAF, Jim Mailer decided to pursue a new vocation in tree work. Swapping an aircraft for a climbing harness, he founded Treeworks Moray, which operates throughout the north-east of Scotland. Here, James Hendrie catches up with him for a chat about how it all happened.

PEOPLE come to the arb sector by varying ways and routes, and for Jim Mailer of Treeworks Moray this was via a 25-year service stint in the Royal Air Force. Jim served in the RAF as an air electronics operator (AEOp), much of it based at RAF Kinloss, in Moray, flying on the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. Jim, from Bearsden, near Glasgow, actually gained his pilot’s licence aged 17 via the Air Training Corps and a Cadet Flying Scholarship at Dundee.

In May 1987, he decided to pursue a career in the RAF as a pilot, going through the intensive selection process, which at the end saw him being offered a role as sergeant aircrew, operating radar, communications, and electronic warfare systems on board the aircraft, rather than the pilot role he was seeking initially. Interestingly, before accepting this offer from the RAF, British Airways invited him to a selection centre with them.

Forestry Journal: Jim alongside Nimrod XV229 on the last ever flight of a Nimrod MR2.Jim alongside Nimrod XV229 on the last ever flight of a Nimrod MR2.

“I had accepted that I wasn’t going to become a pilot with the RAF and although British Airways had contacted me about going to their pilot’s selection centre, a phone call to a friend who had colleagues flying on the Nimrod aircraft convinced me that was what I was going to do.”

Starting RAF training in England in October 1987, Jim eventually arrived at RAF Kinloss in January 1990 and became part of a team of 13 flying on board the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft. His service career saw him involved in air operations during the First and Second Gulf Wars, as well as the Yugoslavian and Afghanistan conflicts. When not in war zones, Jim and his fellow Nimrod crew took part in search and rescue operations at home, and anti-drug and anti-terrorism operations across the globe. Sadly, towards the end of his career he experienced the impacts of Defence cuts.

“David Cameron cancelled the new Nimrod aircraft and his government oversaw a reduction in service personnel. There were rounds of redundancies, which I managed to avoid, although I was so angry and frustrated at the loss of our maritime patrol capability that I had actually hoped that I would have been selected. My wife, Amanda, who I had known from my school days, and who had joined and then married me in Moray when I first started my RAF career, agreed that with the only RAF prospects being a move down south, leaving the RAF was the only option.”

Jim explained that towards the later part of his time at RAF Kinloss, and with the redundancies looming, he had started taking an interest in tree works. This started with a few neighbours asking for his help in taking down some trees and then the wood was split between them and him for use on their own wood burning stoves. He started with a basic Husqvarna saw, which in his words was ‘not up to the task’, but he did certainly develop a taste for working with saws and trees.

Forestry Journal: Haulotte HA 20 boom MEWP removing a dead Scots pine on a job at Elgin.Haulotte HA 20 boom MEWP removing a dead Scots pine on a job at Elgin.

“I decided that I needed to get myself some proper training and I went off to do a course at the Scottish School of Forestry at Balloch, near Inverness. I enrolled to do basic chainsaw maintenance and tree felling. At this stage, I was 45 years of age, fit, and had no hang-ups with sports injuries, and therefore the outdoor manual work was not an issue. I really enjoyed the course and discussing forestry work at the Forestry School with lecturer Neil Stewart.”

Fate then took a turn after Jim completed the course with a call from the Altyre Estate and a meeting with Sir Alastair Gordon Cumming. Sir Alastair had heard that Jim wanted to get into forestry and he offered him work on the estate, tree felling for three months, during the summer of 2011. Given that Jim was living under the threat of redundancy from the RAF, he was able to talk to his bosses about what he was doing and explain it could be the start of a career outwith the RAF.

“I told them I wanted to explore my options and working on the Altyre Estate certainly gave me a great insight into all aspects of both forestry and estate-related work. I carried out a lot of felling and worked with the estate groundsman. I came into work every day with a smile on my face. While there, I also met up with some arb guys and realised that might be an option as well. I decided to apply for the forestry course at the Scottish School of Forestry. I left the Altyre Estate in the August with the promise of work if I was made redundant, but by September I found out that this was not to be the case, as I was not selected for it.”

Forestry Journal: Oak tree being taken down at the Macallan Distillery.Oak tree being taken down at the Macallan Distillery.

Jim then embarked on a two-strand career, remaining in the RAF while at the same time making the decision to start his own business, Treeworks Moray. He purchased a second-hand Ford Ranger for transportation and a Husqvarna 346XP chainsaw, which he told me was a fantastic saw to use and that he still has it. He also got his hands on a Husqvarna 576XP and went for more training, this time with Malcolm Moore who provided National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) chainsaw instruction in the Moray area.

“He taught me about big tree felling, how to deal with windthrow and multi-windthrow trees, and about how to work to standards. My RAF training was perfect for this kind of work; I was used to working to a very high standard and always with safety issues paramount. I knew right away that I had transferable skills that would make the move to tree work possible and desirable in my mind. My RAF career had made me have an ongoing expectation of working and to excel in terms of standards.”

In the cold December of 2011, Jim found himself up in the woods on the Knockando Estate training alongside the estate ghillies, felling big trees, and dealing with lots of windthrow trees under Malcolm’s supervision. It was there that he became aware of just how important winches are to deal with dangerous trees safely, and best practice in planning a job in what can be quite dangerous circumstances. This work and his training taught him to stop and assess each job on its own merits and come up with a solution or way to tackle it.

Meanwhile, his RAF career was only going to continue by moving away from Scotland, and while Jim and Amanda considered moving abroad, with two kids who were still at primary school, they decided that this was not an option. So, in 2012, Jim headed south to take up a post at RAF Northwood on the outskirts of London and Amanda stayed in Moray continuing her teaching career and looking after the children. The full-time work in London meant he had to commute home, only able to carry out tree work when he had a little time off.

While this was a temporary solution, Jim’s real desire became to leave the RAF and when a second batch of redundancies found him not selected, he opted to go down the route known as PVR (Premature Voluntary Release).

“This is known as ‘seven clicks to freedom’ in the RAF and I sent it off after I found out I had not been selected again. I was quite angry at the time but with my service I had built up a supply of what is known as Enhanced Learning Credits (ELC). These were each worth £2,000 in terms of training value and were a great chance for me to reskill and retrain, which is what they are designed to do for RAF personnel during or leaving the service.”

Forestry Journal: Clearing birch logs at the roadside on the Altyre Estate.Clearing birch logs at the roadside on the Altyre Estate.

A couple of Jim’s RAF colleagues had already gone down the route of working in the woods. Spence Braithwaite had set up Speyside Tree Services and Dave Pym had his own company called Greenfaulds Tree Care, both opting for tree surgery. Given their friendship and geographical locations, it made sense at this early stage to agree to work together and pool their resources to get jobs done and to be able to tackle bigger projects.

Jim used his ELC monies from the RAF to embark on a wide range of training in tree work and in starting a business up. He went to TKF Training based in Holmfirth, who he found out had a lot of ex-military personnel using their services to learn how to retrain for life outwith the military. With the felling part of the course already under his belt, TKF arranged work experience with the Kirklees Council tree team, involving work on tree reductions, roadside stump grinding, and valuable experience on assessing tree jobs from a risk and action planning point of view.

Forestry Journal: Clearing windthrow at Tomatin.Clearing windthrow at Tomatin.

For his final days in the RAF, Jim was moved to RAF Lossiemouth near Kinloss, and he spent his last day in service not in a Nimrod aircraft, but felling a large Leylandii hedge above Dufftown – quite appropriate as he started his new career. He had by this stage also added to his equipment portfolio with the purchase of a GreenMech 13-23 5” chipper, and a Brian James 3-metre tipping trailer. Working with Spence and Dave, they started out advertising in the Northern Scot newspaper and began to get work right away.

They soon found that they were able to get work by word of mouth and repeat customers so they stopped the advertising and Jim told me he has not had to do any since then. The trio has since become a duo, after Dave went in a different direction with employment outwith tree work. Jim and Spence have continued to frequently work together, occasionally doing their own jobs.

Jim was working from home, effectively storing his equipment there, which now included the chipper, a Ford Ranger truck, the Brian James trailer and, after a trip to Peterborough, an ’03-plate high-sided tipping Ford Transit. This worked for a while, but neighbour issues led Jim to purchase a plot of land at Woolly Hat, Roseisle, with enough space to self-build a workshop, yard, and a new family home for him, Amanda, and his two children, David and Elspeth. This was in 2016 and work continues as a labour of love in-between keeping his arb business going and striving for a good work-life balance, which is important to Jim.

Forestry Journal: Jim is always happy at the top of a tree.Jim is always happy at the top of a tree.

Since his initial training with TKF Training, he has returned to them to gain training in rigging, pruning, and tree work from a mobile elevated work platform (MEWP). Ongoing continuous professional development (CPD) is something that Jim has strived to achieve since leaving the RAF. The MEWP training has also given him an edge in dealing with certain jobs requiring such machinery to get the job done.

An example of using MEWP training that Jim discussed with me was reducing a number of 60 ft. lime and chestnut trees to 10 ft. standing stumps at the railside near the new Forres railway station using an elevated platform as part of the kit. This job was for BAM Nuttall and saw Jim learning to work with a controller of site safety (COSS), with very limited time frames of access – in this case 12:30 am to 4:30 am – and to understand how to work on a site where railside safety was paramount, as the job had the Inverness to Aberdeen railway on one side and the main A96 trunk route on the other.

Forestry Journal: Jim, Tim Kirk and other ex-military training at TKF Training.Jim, Tim Kirk and other ex-military training at TKF Training.

 “As well as having Speyside Tree Services with me I included Josh Tompkins and Jeremy Thornhill in the team, who for me are two of the best tree climbers in Moray. We used the MEWP to set ropes in the trees as we tackled each one, and to let us reduce their crowns to a size that allowed us to fell each tree safely between the rails and the road when pulled by the tractor winches. We felled two each night then aimed to clear the site, including chipping branches, before our 4:30 am deadline. This unfortunately led to complaints about the noise of the chipping from neighbouring houses.”

For Jim, this issue saw him revert to his RAF training, which had taught him to always be flexible and challenged him to be creative in thinking of another strategy to get the job done.     

“The standard phrase trotted out is ‘flexibility is the key to airpower’ and many times on missions we had to rethink our planning and look at how we were doing things and come up with a new solution, but always with the focus of doing it with the safety of the crew and the aircraft at the forefront. On this job, we refocused on felling the trees during the time window we had, making sure the access to the area was safe and secure on completion, then returned at 7 pm that evening to cut and sort the logs and chip the branches. We then moved on to setting up the next two trees to fell overnight and into the next day.”

Forestry Journal: MEWP in use on a BAM Nuttall job at Forres.MEWP in use on a BAM Nuttall job at Forres.

This job also saw Jim purchase Pfanner Protos ‘blue’ helmets for the whole team; white is the colour for those fully qualified to work trackside. “These helmets are bespoke for tree work and at £160 they were a game changer for me. They have integrated visors and ear defenders, chinstrap, and a mounting for internal safety glasses too, offering better head protection with their ‘honeycomb’ safety protection design. Spence and I had been using them from when they first became available, laughing at the fact we looked like Power Rangers.”

Jim did not just stop there though, taking the helmet a stage further by adding a Sena SMH10S motorcycle intercom system to each. This allowed his team to communicate with each other, whether they were up a tree or on the ground. This was, he felt, invaluable both from a safety point of view but also in getting the job done.

This job allowed him to show that he could tackle bigger, more challenging contracts. He gained experience of working within the constraints of both the railways and the roads, and now holds traffic management qualifications to be able to work on any of the Moray region’s roads.

Forestry Journal: Elm tree being felled at Knockando.Elm tree being felled at Knockando.

Looking to innovate on saws as well, Jim has added a Husqvarna T536Li XP top-handled electric cordless saw, which is powered by a 36V Li-ion 3.0 Ah battery. “This is a great saw and I have found the batteries last well enough to dismantle a large part of a tree’s crown. I used it on a job at a care home at Fochabers where noise and disturbance would have upset the residents. We had worked at a BT call centre near Tain where, after we started the job using standard chainsaws, we got complaints that the staff could not hear the telephone calls. When the Husqvarna battery top-handle came out, it was an obvious choice for jobs of this kind.”

Other saws in Jim’s portfolio include his go-to saw, the Husqvarna 550XPG, which he normally operates with a 15” bar, the 560XPG with an 18” bar and for the big trees he uses the Husqvarna 576XP with a 28” bar. His 576XP saw lasted six years with him felling a number of big elm trees – Jim estimates 250 to 300. For the mega trees, including big spruce and Douglas fir trees, he uses his Stihl MS 880 with either a 36” or a 48” bar. A tiny Stihl MS150 gets used for carving mushrooms. The 576XP has now been replaced by Husqvarna’s 572XPG.

Forestry Journal: Gruffalo carvings, carved by Iain Chalmers, at Milnes Primary School.Gruffalo carvings, carved by Iain Chalmers, at Milnes Primary School.

“I have taken down some really big trees with this saw. I remember two 7 ft. diameter dead elms on the Ballindalloch Estate. Also on this estate, we tackled the felling of seven 150 ft. Douglas firs and 130 ft. larch trees. The wood from these trees was milled by Jonathan Robinson, who used to own a sawmill in West Lothian, and working on these trees gave me my first experience of climbing to a significant height. I like using rope and spikes to climb and there is no greater feeling than climbing up a 120+ ft. tree, topping out the top 30 ft. and then felling the remaining stem without damaging it. For climbing, I prefer using the Petzl ZIGZAG mechanical Prusik. I find it allows me to get around the tree safely, easily, and without causing as much fatigue.”

Forestry Journal: Altyre Estate with GreenMech 13-23 5” chipper in use.Altyre Estate with GreenMech 13-23 5” chipper in use.

As well as the domestic and estate works, Treeworks Moray carries out tree jobs for the lands and parks department of Moray Council. One of the recent jobs there involved the removal of around 50 trees from Fife Park at Keith, mostly Sitka Spruce around 50 ft. in height. This was a tricky job in many different respects, both from the angle that many of the trees were growing at and the decay at their bases. Tractors and winches were needed to ensure they were felled to ground safely. The other issue was dealing with large amounts of dog mess, which covered the site!

To counter this job, which annoyed Jim, in terms of how uncaring the dog owners were at not taking their dog’s mess home, was a much happier job at Milnes Primary School in Fochabers. Here, Jim took down six large cypress trees but rather than grind all of the stumps down, Jim suggested that the school call upon the services of Iain Chalmers of Chainsaw Creations to carve the stumps into something that would benefit the schoolchildren. The result was three Gruffalo carvings for them to enjoy and to use as part of their class work.

It was clear from the time I spent with Jim at his base at Roseisle that he is loving his second career and using much of what he learned during his time in the RAF to make a success of it. He is contented spending time with his family, working on his home and doing tree work, which has now become very special to him. In his words, he has moved from a high-paid and stressful job in the RAF to a less stressful and less well-paid job working with trees, but he goes to work each day with a smile on his face.

Footnote: I met up with Jim just before COVID-19 started to have an impact on tree work and wider society. Jim stopped working completely during the initial phase of the lockdown and currently is only carrying out emergency or essential tree works.

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