From managing church grounds to battling Dutch elm disease, weathering storms and beating back rivals along the way, John Parrington of Hampshire Tree Surgeons has enjoyed quite a career.

AS a young tree surgeon, John Parrington was thrilled to win his first large contract, looking after trees on church land. He had no idea how long it might last. But now, over half a century later, he’s still doing it and loving it.

His story began in 1967 when he formed Hampshire Tree Surgeons, one of only a few professional arb companies in the area between Winchester and Brockenhurst.

He explained: “Starting in a small way, my first large contract was tree work for the diocese of Winchester. From this time to present I have worked for four different diocesan surveyors.

“The work would consist of any tree problems within the land of rectories and vicarages from Yately in the north of Hampshire to Bournemouth in Dorset. Today, we only work for them on a few jobs but also survey all their glebe land.”

Hampshire Tree Surgeons also carried out tree work in private gardens and estates throughout the area, commonly falling foul of old methods which involved filling trees with concrete.

John said: “You can’t see it because it’s covered with lichen and once you hit it you curse for the rest of the day.

“I still have the tools I bought from Honey Brothers of Peasmarsh that we would use for cleaning out the cavity before mixing chemicals to fill it with foam. Once it dried, it was ready to shave off then paint – how things have moved on.”

What’s also changed over the years is the use of eyes, screws and cable to achieve cable bracing. John said: “Now we mainly use cobra bracing, only using light steel cables for smaller trees and hose pipe to thread through to protect the branches.”

Forestry Journal: Measuring tapes for timber.Measuring tapes for timber.

John has always loved the challenge of trying to save trees and, thinking back to his early days, one in particular springs to mind.

In the village of Michelmersh, set in five acres, stood a Queen Anne Grade-2 listed building, owned at the time by a Lieutenant Commander and Mrs de Chair. To the south west of the main house stood a large swamp cypress.

“A white peacock had tried to land in the tree and broke its neck, so into the freezer it went,” said John. “We were called in to remove some of the epicormic growth to stop a recurrence. They had a fine collection of trees, but one caught my eye – a large copper beech.

“It was looking in a poor state. Very thin canopy with small leaves, fungus at the base of the trunk and a little beech bark disease. We discussed a programme and set to work, paring back the branches and painting them with Arbrex. By cauterising the fungus and feeding and watering through the dry summers, the leaves became large and strong.

“The owners eventually moved on and the next occupiers were Sir David Frost and his wife Lady Carina, the Duke of Norfork’s daughter. We carried on the treatment for many years.”

Forestry Journal: John's first tree surgery book.John's first tree surgery book.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the firm focused much of its energy on trying to save elm trees, but by the end of the decade, with the onset of Dutch elm disease, it was felling them.

“We asked for assistance and guidance from the Forestry Commission and the AA, but little advice was given,” said John. “Timber, when felled, was sold and carted off all over the country without restrictions.

“Before the major onset, we set about trying to save a few specimens, climbing and spraying the trees with Mothoxychlor with oil or sitting with a pressure canister with lances around the base of the trunk.

Forestry Journal: Cavity tools.Cavity tools.

“We did have success until the summer of 1976, when it became so hot and dry no-one could save the trees due to lack of water. It was like trying to save an old person with pneumonia.”

As the firm moved into the next decade it began to face increasing competition from other tree surgery companies, which have proliferated in the years since.

“When I started my business in this area, professionally we were few,” said John. “Now there are too many to count.

Forestry Journal: Cube table books.Cube table books.

“Towards the mid-1980s, more companies appeared trying to use the name Hampshire Tree Surgeons and we were in a constant battle to keep our name and maintain our reputation. So, in 1986, I formed Enviro Plant to differentiate myself, while still keeping Hampshire Tree Surgeons as a going concern.

“After picking myself up again, work improved until the night of 1987 (the night of the Fish). The storm kept us busy for some time with clearance and replanting but also trying to get our money from the public or their insurers, or the local authority. Work became tight again, with more people starting up in competition.”

Next came the storm in January of 1990, with strong winds for days causing extensive damage. John remembers it being nearly as bad as 1987, but this was not acknowledged by the government of the day.

Forestry Journal: Elm sprayer.Elm sprayer.

“We were very busy, but as before, many more people started up businesses and work became short with the need to lay off staff,” he said. “Competition is still fierce today, which is good for the client but not for the profession.

“To run a good business costs a lot of money and with today’s added paperwork and bureaucracy, you have little time for yourself. All of the competition keeps prices low and sometimes corners are cut.

“Luckily, we have now been established for many years and most work is from repeat customers. And for every tree we fell, we try to get the client to replant.”

Forestry Journal: An elm tree in France on John’s son’s farm.An elm tree in France on John’s son’s farm.

Today, Hampshire Tree Surgeons provides all aspects of arb services across the south of England and includes tree felling, tree surgery, pruning, planting and feeding.

Meanwhile, John continues to monitor elms both in England and France, where his son has a farm and the trees grow in old hedge lines and can reach around 30 ft before succumbing to disease.

Forestry Journal: John relaxing on his son’s farm in France.John relaxing on his son’s farm in France.

John said: “I believe many cases interlock into the rooting systems of neighbouring trees and connect to the fungus present.

“A few larger trees are protected in the canopy of other trees, so the elm bark beetles can’t pick up their pungent smell.

“On my last visit to France, another group I had been monitoring had succumbed to the beetle, but in another village, there are three that stand tall. Although my son in France tells me one fell in the last storm.  These to date have survived, with other small hedgerow trees dying.”

John loves his job and feels blessed to have enjoyed the career he’s had, working in the countryside, travelling to many different places and meeting lots of interesting people.

His words of wisdom? “Before starting a job, always take time to look at it. Each day don’t be complacent, be aware of the dangers at all times. Adapt to change and never give up.”