Spence Braithwaite found himself contemplating a new career path in 2012 when, after 25 years’ service in the RAF, he was selected for redundancy. Now the proud owner of a thriving firewood and tree care business, he’s not looking back.

JOINING the RAF in 1987, Spence Braithwaite served onboard the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft as an air electronics operator specialising in electronic warfare. After having flown for 19 years, he found himself grounded for medical reasons and posted into the UK’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) as a controller responsible for the command and coordination of the country’s search and rescue helicopters and military mountain rescue teams.

Six years later, in 2012, things took an unexpected turn when the defence review resulted in large-scale redundancies – Spence included. He had to completely reassess his life and find a way to bring his undoubted skills learned during a career flying in the RAF to a new civilian role. The reason he settled on arboriculture as his new career path was, strangely enough, because he had invested in a new heating system at his home in Banffshire.

“I was still in the ARCC at RAF Kinloss when we invested in a biomass boiler to power our home heating and I found it really difficult to source good-quality firewood locally,” he explained. “It made me think that there was a market and perhaps with an eye to the future, the day after the announcement of the cancellation of the Nimrod replacement, I invested in a Farmi Mastersplit WP30 mobile processor from Riko, so I could produce my own firewood.

“Although the WP30 was a great machine and even Riko was surprised at the amount of timber that I put through it, I found that it had limitations with the diameter of timber that it could cope with and with the speed at which it could produce it.”

Forestry Journal: Speyside Firewood & Tree Services base at Ballindalloch.Speyside Firewood & Tree Services base at Ballindalloch.

It only took a year from the cancellation of the new aircraft for redundancy to become real for Spence. He was aware that Jim Mailer, a fellow RAF aircrew colleague, whom he knew in passing from RAF Kinloss, was retraining. He found out Jim was taking his chainsaw and other tree work tickets, caught up with him and, after discussions, became convinced this was a route he too could take.

“For those leaving the armed forces there is the opportunity to take up Enhanced Learning Credits Administration Services (ELCAS) funding to retrain,” said Spence. “After some research, I found that TKF Training at Holmfirth West Yorkshire had ELCAS approval and a course specifically designed with ex-forces in mind to provide arborist and land-based skills.

“There I was first able to do the basic arboriculture course, gaining relevant tickets with the added bonus of business training. A few months later, I went back to them to do a specific ground maintenance course. The quality of training at TKF has been exceptional and I have been back numerous times to upskill or gain new qualifications such as my LOLER (Arb) inspector and they have always been there to offer advice and guidance, even after all these years, a service not all training schools would provide.”

Forestry Journal: Bramble, Spence and his grandson Ellis – a third generation of future arborists perhaps?Bramble, Spence and his grandson Ellis – a third generation of future arborists perhaps?

It made sense that with Jim (Treeworks Moray) and another ex-RAF colleague, Dave Pym, all based in the same geographical area and all finding their way in their new arb careers, they would pool resources and work together. They tapped into a market with lots of demand for tree surgery work and, in Spence’s words, they have “never looked back”. Dave subsequently left tree work, but Jim and Spence still team up to tackle jobs that require each other’s skills and support.

The first job they took on together was for the woman running the resettlement courses at RAF Kinloss. She happened to mention she had some trees that needed attention and that they might as well do the work as that is what they were both retraining to do. They soon found themselves with more than enough to do without seeking out jobs. Their quality of work and word of mouth was all they needed.

“I have done no advertising for the last four years and although I have a website and Facebook presence, very little work comes from either,” said Spence. “Facebook is more useful to me now for the firewood side of the business. One of the best bits of advertising I did though was the signwriting of my business name on my truck as that led to me getting work with Ground Control of Billericay in Essex. They offer specialist grounds maintenance and landscape services across the UK.

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“I was in a B&Q store when my phone rang and a guy asked if I could offer him some advice on a tree job outside the store. I duly went outside and met Ian Low, who was at the time the regional manager for Ground Control. After a conversation with him and listing my qualifications, he was surprised I had so many City & Guilds ground maintenance tickets and this led to an offer to do ground maintenance work for them. This then ultimately led to tree work with them at some major high street retailing chains including Tesco and Sainsbury’s and other businesses such as BT. So, after a short period of operating, I soon had a business that was well supplied with work in ground maintenance, tree work, and firewood customers.”

Forestry Journal: Timberwolf TW 230 VTR in action with Sean doing the feeding.Timberwolf TW 230 VTR in action with Sean doing the feeding.

The firewood side of the business grew quickly in the early days. It soon moved from a winter activity to become something that happened all year round. Spence built a large shed in front of his house for the storage of firewood. The logs were stored in fully vented bags and placed in this shed to air dry. Then, on the surrounding land, he built other workspace buildings to support his growing business.

As with the tree care side of the business, he soon found that word of mouth was the best way to bring in customers and in the last couple of years, a valuable means of communicating with them has been Facebook. This element of the business has been in the hands of Spence’s son James, himself ex-RAF, who runs the page all the way from America.

In 2014, to step up production and meet growing demand, Spence purchased a Trak-Met firewood processor in a deal that saw him get a log deck to move logs to the processor, and a mobile sawmill as well.

“Financially, the deal was great, but with the benefit of hindsight the processor was not up to our needs,” said Spence. “Although it was built like the proverbial ‘brick privy’, it was slow and we had no end of problems with it. Even though I did not buy it directly from the importer of these machines from Poland, they were great at helping us to try getting it up working and keeping it running.

“After 18 months and with the inability to keep up with demand, I sold the Trak-Met – keeping the log deck, as the build quality was superb – and invested in a Hakki Pilke EASY 42 firewood processor, which I had seen in action at the Royal Highland Show. Sadly, this was to prove another costly purchase with lots of days of lost production. The machine is very dependent on a ‘see-saw’ set-up to keep everything in balance and this is easy to upset with twigs or even a small build-up of sawdust. We did not get much support from the people we bought it off. This and the previous purchase convinced me to buy the next processor locally, so we could guarantee help from them if we needed it.”

Forestry Journal: The Tajfun RCA 400 Joy firewood processer is now helping with the increased demand for firewood.The Tajfun RCA 400 Joy firewood processer is now helping with the increased demand for firewood.

Spence told me that this he duly did in 2020, when from Farm and Forestry Equipment at Ardersier in Inverness-shire he purchased a Tajfun RCA400 Joy firewood processor. It may not be the Typhoon of RAF fame, but this Tajfun, in Spence’s view, fit the bill very well. He has also been pleased with the level of support provided from the team at Farm and Forestry Equipment. 

“It is a brilliant machine, well built and fast,” he said. “It has the ability to cut and split simultaneously, cuts hard- and softwood with ease and there are no issues with the balancing on this processor. It is a lot more productive, up to 30 per cent more, from my experience, and we do not have days of production lost with it. Yet again, I have kept the log deck from the Trak-Met. That is one purchase that proved to be a good one!”

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For the last six winters, Spence reckons he has doubled his firewood production, such is the demand locally and further afield. He sources a lot of timber from Forest and Land Scotland and Scottish Woodland, as well as local estates and farms. On most domestic arb jobs, he finds many customers have their own need for the wood from the trees they fell, so it’s rare he can take anything back to the yard for processing.

Forestry Journal: The log yard.The log yard.

Soon after deciding to set up his own business, Spence chose to offer his customers kiln-dried logs. So, using his redundancy money from the RAF, he invested in a commercial biomass boiler. “We aim to get the logs to 20 per cent moisture content or less,” said Spence. “We can get them lower, but in storage, especially in the winter, it becomes a challenge to maintain this level as the logs, especially the softwood, soon take up the ambient moisture of the storage sheds.”

Development of the sawmilling that Speyside Firewood and Tree Services carries out is something that Spence is targeting for the future as another enhanced service that he can offer his customers.

Forestry Journal: Firewood drying in the kiln.Firewood drying in the kiln.

“The sawmill, a Trak-Met 600, has a 10-metre extended deck and can deal with logs up to 60 cm in diameter,” he said. “We have had a few teething problems with the machine which, with the assistance of the Old Station Yard Sawmill at Eardisley, we overcame. Currently, we mill softwood for our own needs, but it is mainly hardwood that we get the demand for. I would like to set up a dedicated hardwood kiln and help customers with the hardwoods they need for their specific projects. It might be a bit niche, but I think there is a market there for us to target.”

Spence reckons the split of his arb work between domestic and commercial is 40:60. On the commercial side, he carries out a lot of work for Ground Control, Mitie, Scottish Woodland and several estates in the north east of Scotland.  Spence and members of his team have undergone traffic management courses for both local and trunk routes, allowing them to deal with dangerous roadside tree work for these clients and offering much more than just a basic tree service to them.

As well as his son helping from a distance, Spence has the benefit of his daughter Gemma, closer to home. Also fully qualified with both ground maintenance and arb tickets, she has been managing the ground maintenance side of the business this year, covering Inverness and all points north. Spence’s son-in-law Sean completes the family involvement, managing the ground maintenance in Aberdeen and the east side of the country.

Forestry Journal: Gemma set to climb on a job near RAF Kinloss (after it had closed) with a Nimrod aircraft of the type Spence used to fly onboard looming in the rear of the picture.Gemma set to climb on a job near RAF Kinloss (after it had closed) with a Nimrod aircraft of the type Spence used to fly onboard looming in the rear of the picture.

“Gemma really wanted to get into the business and has progressed on from just the ground side of it into the tree side with the gaining of her climbing tickets, again with TKF Training down at Holmfirth,” said Spence. “She has worked hard and is a great climber, far better at felling trees than I am.”

Spence has the support of family but also a small, close-knit team of workers that buy into his hard-working ethos. He continues to work with Jim Mailer and other ‘subbies’ as needed. That said, he has found it difficult in the past to recruit people and retain them. He firmly believes, however, that without the right staff, the work cannot happen, so endeavours to train and develop those who do show aptitude.

During lockdown, like the other tree surgeons in his area, Spence stopped carrying out anything other than emergency tree work. After six weeks, once he and other businesses saw the hospital in the local area was coping okay, they restarted other jobs. Firewood production continued with increased demand.

Forestry Journal: Logs are stored in sheds after exiting the kiln.Logs are stored in sheds after exiting the kiln.

“Firewood sales went through the roof,” Spence said. “I guess it must have been because of more people working from home or shielding and using more heating as a result. Strangely, we found a number of suppliers of firewood up here stopped making deliveries and we got requests for logs from further afield than we would normally deliver to. While these customers may return to their normal suppliers after things get back to normal, I felt I needed to keep these people supplied with their firewood needs.”

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On the saw front Spence has some interesting views, declaring himself not a great fan of either Husqvarna or Stihl chainsaws, based on some bad experiences.

He explained, “I always used Husqvarna saws, but ended up having all kinds of problems, especially with the 560XP. After having to return my first one as unfit for purpose, my second one only had 70 hours of trigger time when the engine failed catastrophically and I felt I never got a lot of support over the issues with it. That said, I still have some Husqvarna and Stihl saws, but am tending towards Echo as they have improved dramatically over the last few years and come with a two-year professional warranty. 

“The Echo 620SX is a great saw and we have just ordered two CS-501SX with heated handles to try to help guard against ‘white finger’. This can come from the constant vibration of operating a chainsaw, which affects the capillaries in the hands and therefore heated handles should help with the blood flow in the hands and fingers – well worth the extra £40, in my opinion. We also have a pair of CS360TES top-handle saws – these are also great.”

Despite not being a fan of the big names in saws, Spence bought a Stihl MS 500i, which he said “is a nice saw with a good power-to-weight ratio and a good, big saw to use when you are up a tree”.  Big fans of battery technology, one of Spence’s ground maintenance teams is equipped with battery strimmers, hedge cutters and blowers from Husqvarna, all of which have performed very well. This has spilled over into the tree teams who also use a battery pole pruner and battery top-handle saws.

While few customers, in his experience, want their tree stumps removed, mostly due to the extra cost, he does have a Bandit HB20SC stump-grinder so he can offer the service to those that do. Spence has found it to be a small, compact machine, easy to get into back gardens and capable of grinding out small-to-medium trees with ease.

Forestry Journal: Building up log supplies to cope with the increased demand for firewood.Building up log supplies to cope with the increased demand for firewood.

In August 2018, Spence purchased a Timberwolf TW 230 VTR tracked woodchipper, which he has been very impressed with. “I wanted a tracked chipper because we can be more productive, taking the chipper to the wood, rather than having to expend man-hours taking the wood to the chipper,” he said. “Better that it is the machine that is suffering from wear and tear than the operators.”

Given that 2020 was the year in which Spence saw there was enough business to run a second tree work team, he has recently decided to go for another Timberwolf chipper, this time the road-tow version of the 230. In his words, Timberwolf chippers are “exceptional, well built, powerful, and easy to work on”. 

2020 also saw the telehandler used to move logs around the yard replaced with a New Holland T5 tractor.

“We have used a T4 for several years, both on the yard and on tree jobs, and have been very impressed with it,” said Spence. “However, when Ravenhill made an offer we could not refuse, we traded in the telehandler for the T5. The T5 gives us better lifting power, and when coupled with the log grab and winch gives us another great tool in the arsenal.”

Forestry Journal: Work in progress on a job at Arndilly Estate in Speyside.Work in progress on a job at Arndilly Estate in Speyside.

Spence said that obtaining supplies of hardwood is always a problem. Though he is surrounded by thousands of acres of trees, nearly all of them are softwood. In addition, a lot of the hardwood he gets is small diameter and so very slow to process. To get round this, he bought an Arpal AM-120TR branch logger from Welmac UK.

“It is a great, if not a brutal machine, which will chop up a small diameter length of beech in seconds,” he said. “The only downside is the small logs (10 cm) that it produces. A bigger version should create larger logs.”

In a few years, Spence has built up a thriving business with the support of family and his team. It is clear that many of the skills he acquired in the RAF – of planning, analysis, training and safe working, to name but a few – have allowed him to pursue a successful second career. Throughout our chat and subsequent tour around his yard at Ballindalloch, I got the impression that he was not planning to sit back and let things evolve in time. I was sure he would have a plan for the business and I asked him to outline the future of Speyside Tree Services.

“I do not see much expansion in the ground maintenance side,” he said. “It is likely to just keep ticking over. As I have said, I think there is potential to develop and expand the sawmilling side. Firewood has continued to grow each year and I do not see that changing. I had 100 tonnes of hardwood logs in the yard last March, most of which has gone. The trick for the future is going to be securing timber supplies. I am looking to increase storage capacity in the yard to allow more stock to be built up, while on the tree works side the plan is to run two teams and a third when needed with myself and Jim.”

Interestingly, another business development has been on the personal front with Spence himself. At the end of 2019, he became a City & Guilds instructor and assessor in the use of brush cutters, strimmers and pole saws, with plans in 2021 to expand this into other ground maintenance areas, including spraying. Before leaving, I had to ask Spence how he felt about now working with trees compared to planes.

“Flying was brilliant, I served in various conflicts, coordinated rescue efforts, helped to test equipment and even took part in dog fights with Tornado fighters, so my RAF career was special and rewarding,” he said. “Tree work is a new career path for me and I can honestly say it is one of the best jobs in the world. There are highs and lows, no two days are the same, and it is hard work, but it has been great to build a business and achieve things in it.

“There are some great people working in the industry and I know that there are many who are only a phone call away if I want help or advice.”



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