A chance run-in saw essentialARB discover the Wessex Tree Care team during felling work in Wiltshire. Here we profile a firm at the top of its game. 

BROWN’S Law states that if you do nothing at all, your problems solve themselves.
Brown used to work for me and he swore by this rule of life, and for me it couldn’t be truer than when I bumped into Sean Davies of Wessex Tree Care. I’d given up trying to contact tree surgeons, foresters and people in our trades. Nobody ever answered the emails and requests to feature them here.

(If you want to be featured, contact me – info@dwoliver.com)

So, I waited while contemplating how to proceed when I heard a chipper running, less than half a mile from our own yard – and it wasn’t one of ours.

Forestry Journal: Wessex’s staff showed they could handle the job with care and professionalism.Wessex’s staff showed they could handle the job with care and professionalism.

Wessex Tree Care, under the supervision of Sean, was undertaking the dismantle of a row of unstable, 60– to 70–foot leylandii on the side of the A4 Bath Road. I know for a fact the trees were no good, they’ve been falling apart for years and the council helpfully chuck each fallen stem into my own land each time there’s a storm.

The trees themselves divide at about halfway, into several spindly stems that catch the wind and passing lorries and then peel out. They would be very difficult to climb and our Land Rover–based cherry picker wouldn’t have reached the tops, so I was happy not to be doing the job; it really needed better kit than I have.
And Sean does have better kit.

I asked if I could take some photos, after a brief conversation about stuff in general and the arb world in particular and agreed to meet the following day for a chat. This was to be as brief as possible, bearing in mind the size of the task and the allocated time.

“I won’t hurry, we’ll go steady,” said Sean, (talking about the tree work, rather than my impending interview), which seemed wise considering the powerline behind, the road to the front and nearby cottages and parked cars. In my head I guessed the job would have taken us a couple of weeks, the old–fashioned way, and that’s with the advantage of being local.

Forestry Journal: he Wiltshire trees had to be felled because of disease.he Wiltshire trees had to be felled because of disease.

Sean’s crew had to travel up from Erlestoke, to the west of the Salisbury Plain, so when I returned the next day, I was slightly surprised to see a quarter of the job done.

It didn’t take me long to work out why.

As well as some very impressive plant, Sean was running a crew of four plus himself; two Seans, Matt, Marlon and a Nigel.

“You Nigels are getting rare aren’t you?” I asked, professionally. Nigel, who is 58 and from a golden era of such, nodded: “Most of us are French these days,” he said, inexplicably and without a hint of any continental accent.
I tried to get back onto the theme and asked if the boss was any good on the grapple saw, which is mounted behind an impressive Kubota tractor. 

“Yeah, he’s getting the hang of it,” which probably meant that Sean was actually quite skilled.

I watched as one of the climbers, Matt, put a gob into the next tree, facing diagonally down the road into the traffic–lighted cordon. I was pleased the tree was to be felled that way, it was easily tall enough to hit my own fence if it went straight across the road.

With Matt waiting, the head of the grapple saw was placed behind the tree, like a semi-open hand, and as the back cut went in, the tree pushed gently over. The other men, who’d halted the traffic both ways, jumped in and cleared the open carriageway in under a minute. We’ve done this in the past, you need to be quick, or some impatient driver will attempt to come through anyway.

Forestry Journal: ean Davies and his colleagues weren’t afraid to take on a job others wouldn’t want to do.ean Davies and his colleagues weren’t afraid to take on a job others wouldn’t want to do.

It was impressive. I particularly liked the loading up of the cord wood into the forestry trailer – no effort and all ready to be chipped for biomass back at the yard. The brash was chipped into a vehicle, destined for the same.

Nigel’s summary of his boss’ skills seemed slightly understated as I watched Sean use the grapple to grasp a four–inch diameter branch high up the next tree and twist it easily off, so that it wouldn’t snag for the next fell.

I watched a while and then at tea asked Sean about the business, which was established in 1992, two years after my own.

“We use our own staff, on the books and help train them, but I do encourage them to move along when they are ready, to do their own thing if they want to.” 

I asked who was in charge, when he was off big game fishing, which I was trying not to ask about in case I got more envious still, and because this is a forestry/arb publication.

“We’re communists, really,” he replied. “Everyone has a slightly different role, all with their own skillset and everyone gets on with the job without anyone really telling others what to do.”

I knew what he was getting at, but wasn’t sure whether his experiences in the army made him adopt this position, or his years as an arborist. I should have asked more about the team dynamic, but got distracted by the tractor again.

“It’s low spec, levers not computers,” he admitted, but making me want one even more than before.

Forestry Journal: A chance meeting saw our man run into the Wessex Tree Care team.A chance meeting saw our man run into the Wessex Tree Care team.

At some point in my journalism, I really must ask how other contractors manage the financial side of things. But it seems slightly crass to say: “How do you afford all this stuff?”

During my brief encounter I noted an Iveco MEWP, probably a 60-foot reach straight up, a twin-cab 5-tonne tipper, Land Rover Defender, Forst 6” trailed chipper and the grapple saw and Kubota. Along with the smaller tools and traffic management kit, as well as what wasn’t on site, this adds up to a hefty investment.

I know Sean does a lot of roadside work and for once I wasn’t envious. 

“We do the jobs other tree surgeons don’t want,” he said.

I knew this to be true, as he was actually doing one I didn’t want. I’d told the local parish council that the trees needed to go, but I wasn’t keen on doing it.
This probably answers the question about the available capital to invest in more machinery, just doing more awkward and unpleasant jobs, but there was a hint that Sean wasn’t entirely occupied with such.

“I like planting, landscaping and working on estates,” he said.

He also told me he worked with other contractors, similar to his own company. 

“Most tree surgeons don’t dislike each other, they just don’t talk to one another, but I cooperate with other companies and agree to not compete with certain jobs.”

‘Aha,’ I thought, that actually makes a lot of sense.

I also acknowledge that isn’t always easy, it can be competitive, especially in rural parts such as ours, but perhaps it is the way forward. I’ve been thinking so myself, or at least on my son’s behalf.

Wessex Tree Care is successful, the men were working well as a team and Sean – like myself – has retirement on his mind.

“I leave the men to get on with it mostly and only come out to play with the toys. I’m happy fishing, in Ireland, Cuba, Belize …”

I needed to get off fishing topic, it would drive me mad as I’ve been either too busy or incapacitated for much fishing for a while now, so asked some questions about the grapple saw.

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“It’ll lift 350 kg if the tree is upright, like a candle, and lower it gently without problems. I set the machine to that, but it’ll retract if the load is too heavy.” 

Sean explained that dealing with the ash dieback was easier in Somerset than here, in Wiltshire, because they had been suffering with it for longer down there. It’s relatively recent around us.

I knew that; I’ve been watching it spread slowly in, particularly north from Dorset on my own rare fishing trips, (I know, hardly Belize!), but puzzled why Somerset trees were easier, though the answer is obvious. 

“They’ve been dead longer farther west, that makes them lighter for the grab.”

I haven’t used this type of machinery, have no experience of it and am not sure that I want to try something new as I’d rather be doing other things, as I try to retire a bit.

My son, however, might be tempted one day, it does look a very efficient way to remove trees, particularly roadside and in open areas. The problem, of course, is that the more trees felled, the more you need to dispose of.

Forestry Journal:

“It all goes for biomass, collected from the farm and buildings we have.” 

That’s the thing with arboriculture; you need a huge amount of infrastructure around and beyond the actual day-to-day felling of trees.

Without a yard, what’s the use of a chipper? You have to be able to dispose of the client’s wood waste. But then, what do you do with the woodchip? And what about waste licences, storage of waste, and the collection of woodchip by those huge lorries the biomass companies send?

It is extraordinarily complicated if you haven’t got the facilities, and relatively simple if you have.

Wessex Tree Care and Sean have obviously got a decent set-up to support what I was watching over the past two days.

From the army, which in 1992 didn’t equip its ex-soldiers with grants, training and help starting in arb – not according to Sean anyway – to running a successful business is quite a step, and one which I am sure has had its own pitfalls along the way. But I didn’t have time to talk much, the team were trying to get on and I didn’t want to be in the way.

Marlon chatted a bit about his role as groundsman, from what I could see he fitted in smoothly and seemed to be a friendly likeable type as well as sharp and hardworking in the flurries of activity to clear the road. Nigel had one of those open, happy personalities, seemingly content with his work despite being older than me and being of a dying breed (only two Nigels born this year apparently ... apart from the French ones).

I didn’t talk to the other two men, Sean and Matt, they were having lunch in the cab and I know better than to interrupt a man’s dinner, they missed the photo too, but it was busy and I didn’t want to go back later. There were a lot of trees still to do, and with roadside work you don’t get to hang around chatting to passers–by or wannabe journalists.

I could have come away from the site feeling envious of all the kit, the infrastructure and the way the work is carried out, and the fishing too, but I know that all arb has its headaches and difficulties. Perhaps next time I’m on site with tree men I’ll ask about that as well.

Anyway, Sean Davies and Wessex Tree Care might have a grapple saw and a Kubota, but I have a much, much better moustache than Sean!