Nick Bolton re-established his consultancy Tree Frontiers in 2020 after an eight-year tenure as head of arboriculture at Lockhart Garratt, the same year he was awarded the prestigious James Cup by the Royal Forestry Society. Here, he shares his story with Carolyne Locher.

IT is a Monday morning in April and Lockdown 3 restrictions have eased just enough to allow Nick Bolton to move his Oxfordshire-based consultancy Tree Frontiers into new offices, first rented in January.

We are speaking on this sunny spring morning because in February 2021 his article ‘Tree Risk Management’ was awarded the prestigious James Cup by the Royal Forestry Society, for the best original article* published in the Quarterly Journal of Forestry during the previous year.

The article, written in 2019 while Nick was still director of arboriculture at Lockhart Garratt, was described by RFS judges as ‘very accessible and clearly presented,’ explaining ‘landowners’ responsibilities concerning potential risks posed by the trees on their property,’ and ‘a must read for any woodland or tree owner’.

Forestry Journal: Nick Bolton.Nick Bolton.

Nick said: “Winning came out of the blue. When the article was first published in April 2020, it got some traction. Winning the James Cup brought the same,” a fresh wave of PR and an increase in business enquiries.

Nick is an engaging conversationalist and thinks deeply about his chosen subject. He also has an unsettling habit of leading you down one avenue of thought and just when you think you’ve grasped it, he deliberately turns it on its head, to illustrate the illusory and contrary concept of ‘risk’*.

Tree Frontiers consults directly for clients across the UK: schools; local universities; large landowners; and indirectly via land agents, architects, and developers. Most of Nick’s time is spent on surveys for landowners and implementing Tree Risk Management Systems, of which there are four elements:

1. A written Tree Risk Management Policy (TRMP).

2. Zoning.

3. Inspections.

4. Record keeping.

In Nick’s experience, more landowners now have a system in place than was evident three years ago. This is often because of land agents becoming aware of the issues and prompting clients to act. Those who have already taken action include the estate management team for a well-known university whose first round of surveys were completed last year. “Discovering that they actually owned three additional small plots of land (believed at first to be the responsibility of another department), they asked me back. This has resulted in more advice being sought from other departments and colleges.”

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To make tree risk surveys? “A tree condition survey. It is a really important distinction. Although it may well morph in part to a risk assessment.”

For a layman, this is an easy mistake to make, as Nick explained: “People talk about tree risk surveys, when what they are actually asking for is a condition survey; someone to look at a garden tree or a large population of trees and to know if there is anything they should be concerned about.”

Condition surveys can be made by walking down a road or footpath and observing the obvious hazards and defects. “Sometimes, depending where you are and what you see, you then start to look at the tree in much closer detail, from top to bottom, finding yourself thinking ‘where is this tree?’, ‘what is the level of occupancy?’, ‘who is coming past; vehicles, cyclists or cars along a main road?’, ‘a playground, or historical structure?’, and by default you start to slip into a risk assessment.

Forestry Journal: Nick is in discussions with an AI company considering using drone-captured images to identify Japanese knotweed and Ash dieback. “They are working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to train the AI to identify ash trees.” In summer, this can be done from the leaves. In winter, it is hoped that the AI will be trained to identify the bark, so that assessment can be made year-round.Nick is in discussions with an AI company considering using drone-captured images to identify Japanese knotweed and Ash dieback. “They are working with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology to train the AI to identify ash trees.” In summer, this can be done from the leaves. In winter, it is hoped that the AI will be trained to identify the bark, so that assessment can be made year-round.

“For a risk assessment, you have to know what the tree is, the hazard and the potential target, to then assess the likelihood of the hazard failing, hitting the target and causing an injury, and what the severity of that impact may be. From that, you can say what the risk is and what measures to put in place to reduce that risk.”

Nick, 48, began his career as a shipbroker in London. Deciding it was not for him, he moved back to Oxfordshire in 2001 and began helping out on the family farm, with bits of chainsaw work. In 2002, he qualified as a tree surgeon (Merrist Wood) and started a tree surgery company, which he later sold. In 2010, halfway through an online arboriculture degree (Myerscough), he established the arboricultural consultancy Tree Frontiers.

“In 2012, I was introduced to Lockhart Garratt. They were looking at geographic expansion. I was looking to work with a multi-disciplinary team and helped build up the Oxfordshire office to 10–12 people (including ecologists, foresters, and landscape architects). Having a desk next to these people and the conversations that flow from that, you realise the integrated nature of some of these development projects. It was an important thing to have experienced.”

With eight years as head of arboriculture under his belt, Tree Frontiers was re-established in May 2020.

How was going solo? “I loved it!”

During a pandemic lockdown? “Landowners still have a duty of care to make sure their trees are safe. Seeing now how beaten up the paths are, you understand how many people were out taking exercise in the last 12 months. Where we could get to a site and do tree surveys, we did them; there was no let up.” Performing tree condition and risk assessment surveys for clients with landholdings divided by major roads, the reduced traffic was beneficial. “I still subcontract for Lockhart Garratt when arboricultural opportunities arise.”

One of Tree Frontiers’ first enquiries sparked by winning the James Cup came from a land agency who have subsequently booked presentations on ‘How to manage risk by creating a tree risk management system’ followed by Q&A sessions.

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Nick illustrated how he works using an example of a property company managing two separate estates with landholdings totalling around 6,000 ha. Tree assets include roadside trees, hedgerow trees, trees on public footpaths and trees growing around private residential lets and commercial properties.

“When I got involved, they had no written system. Inspecting on an ad hoc basis, they realised that they needed something more structured. I wrote a policy document (1) defining their approach, explaining what they were going to do and how. We zoned everything (2) and carried out the first set of inspections in Zone 1 areas.”

Policy documents are cost-effective and not difficult to write. “Complexities arise when defining who the accountable decision-maker is. In some cases it is obvious, but less so when the registered landowners are the board of directors of a company or trustees of a settlement estate.”

Creating zones is “about understanding the occupation levels in a given area and working with a landowner to agree timeframes in which condition assessments are carried out. Zone 1 could be a high-usage car park and may need inspecting every year by a professional. Outlying parkland trees could fall within Zone 3. An inspection every three or five years by a member of an estates team with basic tree inspection qualifications and ability to identify key features may suffice, referring to a specialist if further clarification is needed.”

For the property company client, condition surveys of Zone 1 areas (3) across both estates took 10 days. “I walked more miles than my feet care to remember, maybe 30 to 40 miles, surveying thousands of trees on a negative basis (recording defects that need dealing with). It was time-consuming but fairly straightforward. Management recommendations range from dealing with some instances as a matter of emergency, while referring others for advanced risk assessment surveys.

“Risk assessments look in detail at particular issues. You may return two or three times to do more advanced work, climbing, taking samples to be sent off to a lab, or using specialist equipment such as advanced decay detection resistographs or sonic tomography. For a tree in decline growing in a key position, I might recommend planting and establishing a replacement in the short term, keeping an eye on its condition in the interim, and felling in five years’ time.”

One condition survey remains outstanding. It requires an authorised National Rail employee to accompany him. “The client has a National Rail mainline track running along a southern boundary alongside a river and canal. Two years ago, we surveyed with a drone, but with the brambles and nettles six feet high, all we picked up was ADB-infected ash trees (less canopy). National Rail makes its own surveys, but the landowner still has trees within falling distance of the line. The ground is a quagmire, and you cannot physically get to places other than along the railway line. A further challenge will be accessing trees whose condition is identified as a risk or needing to be felled. They might not physically be able to reach them other than walking down the line with a chainsaw. We are still trying to work it out.”

While many consultants can write guidance notes and management plans, Nick believes his pragmatic approach sets him apart. “I am aware that I may be opening up a large can of worms – a whole industry is built on risk management – but there is a massive difference between risk assessing an oil rig in the North Sea, an engineered structure designed to withstand once-in-100-years freak events, and risk assessing a tree, a living organism. We can run all sorts of tests and measurements, but we will never get a precise answer. If someone says that a branch is (or is not) going to fail, they are making a statement that they cannot necessarily substantiate.”

Forestry Journal: Beech tree with a cavity near a road. Nick using an IML Resi PD400 Microdrill to determine the relative density of wood at the drilling point. Healthy wood is denser than dead or decaying wood. A Resi PD can help show this, which is useful in decision-making.Beech tree with a cavity near a road. Nick using an IML Resi PD400 Microdrill to determine the relative density of wood at the drilling point. Healthy wood is denser than dead or decaying wood. A Resi PD can help show this, which is useful in decision-making.

Using the International Society of Arboriculture’s Tree Risk Assessment methodology (TRAQ), Nick rates risks as ‘Low’, ‘Moderate’, ‘High’ or ‘Extreme’. “I cannot prove my judgement, but I can explain how that conclusion was reached and advise on how to reduce the risk to an acceptable level (Low).”

Some clients have a higher risk threshold (Moderate) written into their policy documents for trees in remote locations. “In the event that something happens, and they are challenged by insurers, the rationale is written and explained. If something goes wrong, the insurers (or external experts) can then decide whether the decision-making was ‘reasonable’.”

He has come across landowners preferring not to have a tree risk management policy in place at all, “taking the view that they have insurance, and if a tree falls over, they will take the consequences.”

Is this view worth the risk? “My view is that doing nothing is not worth the risk. Landowners have a legal duty of care to ensure their trees don’t cause harm. There is also moral duty, reputational risk, and the question of negligence vs recklessness. If a landowner reads this article and is aware that they should inspect their trees, but consciously makes the decision not to, could that be construed as being reckless?”

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“Today, there is no such thing as an accident, seemingly somebody somewhere must always be held to be accountable. COVID-19 has cost the insurance market billions, having been told they must cover ‘business interruption’ claims. What will they do when faced with a landowner without a tree risk management system in place, who thought ‘this is what my insurance is there for’? Will we start to see an increase in insurance claims being refused because a landowner has not done everything they can?”

Record keeping (4) and reviewing a TRMP can be less straightforward. “A land manager or agent is a professional paid to look after the rural holding, agriculture and let or commercial properties, trees forming just a tiny part.” Or, “a rural side street may have become a busy main thoroughfare if a new development has been built nearby.”

To counter this, Nick uses a cloud-based platform (OTISS) to store information and share with the client (or a tree surgeon when works are required) all statements, zone plans, tree surveys, images, resurveys and more. “You start to build up an audit trail of who did what, when, where and why.” For some, he manages the system, checking quarterly on completed works, works that are due, and sending out reminders accordingly.

This writer first met Nick when he was flying a DJI Phantom drone over a client holding for Lockhart Garratt. Tomorrow, the same drone will capture aerial images of a site for a developer client to use in CGI clips, part of a contract which, until now, centred on a canopy cover assessment.

“Last year, Oxford Council had their ‘Local Plan’ adopted. For any future development, they require a canopy cover assessment. This means taking the site area covered by tree canopy today and forecasting the canopy in 20–40 years’ time. If the proposed development requires canopy loss, they want to know the extent of the loss and what it will be replaced by, again forecasting forward 20–40 years, to ensure there is no net loss.

“This approach is transformational. Taking out five small trees and planting two big trees, in 40 years’ time you may have a much larger canopy area and therefore the benefits that accrue (habitat, shading, reducing the urban heat island, and visually). This project has replacement canopy going in on a constrained site and it was a stretch to make it work. Submitted to planning in the next 4–5 weeks, it will be interesting to see where it goes.”

Did PR from the James Cup bring any other enquiries? “I have been asked to run a day’s Basic Tree Inspection course and, in the autumn, present two courses for the Royal Forestry Society, ‘Creating a Written Policy’ and ‘Putting Together a Zoning Plan’.”

Initially, putting together presentations can be time-consuming. If Tree Frontiers grows organically as planned, then in addition to working with more landowners, land managers and developers, it is a small area of the business that Nick would like to expand.

*The article was inspired by a series of unrelated events, including: Forestry Commission guidance on managing ash dieback in commercial woodlands vs how to manage ash dieback in non-commercial settings (urban and roadside, or field and hedgerow ash); a land agency seeking an opinion on whether their not having inspected a field tree prior to it falling and damaging a fence was negligent (both the landowner’s insurers and the property owner’s insurers agreeing that they were, and Lockhart Garratt and the land agent disagreeing); the Court of Appeal upholding a prosecution against landowner Witley Parish Council for failing in its duty of care to inspect trees growing on its land with sufficient frequency; Lockhart Garratt publishing guidance for landowners on how to manage ash dieback and organising a roadshow of talks to discuss the same. “Someone at the RFS thought an article would be a good idea.”

*Illustrating the illusory and contrary concept of ‘risk’:

“If there is a dead branch that has partially failed and is hanging by a thread, saying ‘it will fail’ is obvious. The subtlety comes with assessing whether a branch on a seemingly healthy tree will fail, or whether a dead branch will actually fail. It’s a judgement call based on experience and training, but not one that can be scientifically or mathematically proven – or at least not within a sensible or cost-effective time frame!”

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