More in our series following one man’s sometimes funny, sometimes fraught, and oft-times very harrowing journey through a 20-odd-year career in arboriculture.

I’M not sure why, but we currently have far too much work.

The incessant e-mails and phone calls have meant that I’ve had to help my son more than I intended; I wanted to catch codling and pollack, not organise work, which is now six months into the future.

Yesterday, for instance, I was staggering around in a tangle of brash on a very rural estate, trying to find marks on ash trees that were in dense scrub and surrounded by barbed wire and ditches.

It took four hours to find five trees, the annoying thing being that 92 per cent of you would have found them in less than half the time, and, yes, I know that’s very specific.

It did serve to remind me of the late summer of 2001, though, which is helpful in writing this.

READ MORETale from the Trees - Visiting with urgency

We were, unlike today, very, very quiet. There just weren’t any enquiries and I don’t really know why, it was quite often like that in the down season of late summer, before I had enough established contracts.

Anyway, the phone rang and I answered to a chap with a distinctive West Midlands accent. “I need labour, it’s a forestry job and I looked up your website on the internet.”

His name was Paul, if I remember correctly.

Pleased that my relatively new experiment with the World Wide Web had paid off (I’m sure I was ahead of the game here), I asked him to tell me more.

“I need a gang to start work on Monday, or sooner, the last lot let me down.” 

I was suspicious, but getting desperate. Why had the last lot let him down? I wondered, and assumed it to be over money, the unpleasantness of the job or other work commitments. I was later to find out I had correctly guessed at two-thirds of the reason, but meanwhile agreed to meet him on the Monday, but adamantly refused to commit to the work, until I’d assessed the job.

It was a hot day after the weekend, and I assumed I’d have a wait, while he travelled from Birmingham to Savernake Forest, but was surprised to see him roll into the woodyard we’d agreed to meet in at 9.30 am.

The chap was obviously in a hurry. 

“It’s somewhere in there,” he said, wasting little time on formalities and pointing at a canopy of young larch, with hawthorn and bramble forming a dense, almost impenetrable barrier beneath.

We both plunged into the thicket, me wondering what on earth we were going to find and what he wanted me to do, him muttering continually in an accent I barely understood about ‘pressure of time’, and repeating that he most certainly expected me to take on the work.

I resisted, explaining that we were quite busy, which was certainly a far-fetched lie.

After a very long time, possibly half an hour, we broke through into a newly planted area of young larch, that I had a feeling I’d planted myself a few years before, but was so confused by our disorientating trip through the scrub, I couldn’t be sure.

“I need all the birch scrub cut down, bundled up and removed.” 

He pointed at the regenerated, multi-stemmed coppice of silver birch; there was a very large quantity and I instantly knew I didn’t want to do it. This was reinforced by what he said next, combined with some very fast mental arithmetic on my part.

I can’t remember the figures, but I think he was willing to pay £1 a bundle, on a piece-work rate.

I calculated that one man might create sixty bundles a day, if he was extraordinarily hard working and didn’t mind days of staggering over brash, cordwood, brambles and old tree root plates.

It might seem odd that I wasn’t exactly keen, bearing in mind the work and monetary situation, but something about the whole thing just felt bad.

“The Forestry Commission let me have the birch,” he was saying, “I sell it to the eventing places for horse jumps.”

This explained something at least, I was beginning to think the chap from the Midlands was trying to re-establish the besom as a viable product – think witch’s broomstick – and had doubts that this might catch on.

Having decided already that I didn’t want any part of this, and wondering how to explain that his three-hour drive had been a waste of time, I was made even more adamant not to join his enterprise by what he said next.

“You’ll need to drag the bundles through the woods,” he pointed at the scrub we’d just struggled through, “and help load the artic. By hand.” He did at least manage to look apologetic.

“What, all for £1 a bundle?” I asked, incredulously.

“Yes, we found that two men cutting and one dragging works best, then all meet up at the pull-in and load the lorry together, that’s the hard bit …”

I interrupted, “It’s ALL the hard bit!” Then, quickly before I lost momentum, “No thanks, I’m afraid I don’t want the job.”

Paul looked upset.

“I really need this done, I’ve got an order to fill, you have to help.” He looked cross, as well as disappointed, but I wasn’t going to be persuaded, this was madness and I knew it. I remember cutting hawthorn on the Salisbury Plain, losing money at an astonishing rate and vowing never again (though I have repeated the loss making, many times).

I told him ‘no’ again, then repeated it along with the reasons why. “I can’t make decent money at this, it’s a nightmare.”

“Please!” begged Paul, and I felt awful, empathy is a curse sometimes.

The guilty feeling didn’t last, because the entrepreneur started to get cross. “You said you would.”

“No, I didn’t, I said I’d meet you.” I was not going to be persuaded, not at any cost, not even if he doubled the money, which he didn’t.

It was swelteringly hot, there were horseflies and I wanted to end this awful, unpleasant meeting. “I have to go; I’ve got another meeting,” I lied.

I started marching back into the woods.

“Do you know anyone else?” The man was obviously desperate, but I suddenly remembered someone else in the same boat, a chap I was later to be good friends with (perhaps he never found out I passed on his name).

“You could try the two Steves,” I said, and agreed to call him with a number later.

I knew one of these men from my past and that he’d had some bad luck with a business venture and had rung me for work. He had some debts to pay.

Later that evening Paul rang me, I’d not called him which was a bit remiss, but I had misgivings about the whole venture and didn’t want to lumber someone else with it.

After flatly refusing to do his work even at £1.10 and £1.20 a bundle, I passed on the number and forgot all about it.

Two decades later, one of the Steves and I were fishing and he was relating a story about hard times, back at the beginning of the century, and I was suddenly very interested.

“Steve and I were in the woods, neither of us knew much about chainsaws and it was so hot that Steve took off his trousers and pants to put on the seatless chainsaw leggings to do the cutting.”

I laughed.

“The boss, who needed the birch for horse jumps, came to see us on site, just as Steve bent down to pick up a bundle, he was horrified!”

I chortled, then admitted that it had been me that got them the work.

“Did you make any money?” I asked.

Steve, the one I was talking to rather than the mooning Steve, shook his head sadly.

“We worked like dogs, the two of us, for three weeks, then a lorry showed up and we had to load it by hand. I’ve never worked so hard for so little, but it got us out of a financial scrape.”

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“Three weeks?!” I was incredulous. “You must have been exhausted, as well as demoralised.” I wondered if Paul had left the bit about the lorry loading out of his negotiations, realising it might be a deal breaker if such wasn’t already broken, as it had been with me.

He explained the process, the heat, the horseflies and the dragging and loading, as well as the constant pain of being bent double, trying to tie bundles and the drag through the woods, all with two men. But, at the end, the boss, Paul, had paid up on time and been very grateful, though, from what I can gather, he didn’t think much of me.

I was pleased that Paul had fulfilled his contract, but also relieved – even after so long – that I hadn’t done the work.

Apparently, they worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, which I’ve done myself in distant years. I suppose the desire to clear your debts and start again must have inspired them to carry on, presumably they were more desperate than me back then.

But it could have carried on, maybe indefinitely from what I could gather at what my fishing friend had to say next.

“Paul called again, the year after and asked us back, but once was enough and we were established in a new business by then, so we said no. He was very disappointed.”

I could imagine, I also have doubts that he ever did find anyone else, it was just too hard and unrewarding and my own business picked up after I had met the man in the woods, so I never did regret my decision that summer day.

Last time I went in that direction, all the plantations I could see were fully submerged in birch scrub, so I suppose the Forestry Commission lost their free scrub clearance too.

Oddly, I have a great deal of respect for Paul (probably not his real name, it was a long time ago). The man was obviously from town and unused to forestry, I know he got lost on the way back from our meeting and spent ages headed in the wrong direction because he told me that night. You do need to know a few country skills to navigate in the woods, it’s very easy to get lost and I quite often pick up exhausted stragglers on the side of the road who have been similarly disorientated.

But Paul had a plan, it must have been very complicated to coordinate and I guess he ultimately succeeded, even without my help. I can understand why the previous team had abandoned their post, though I don’t really approve. If you commit to a thing, it needs seeing through.

From my own point of view and all these years later, I still mistrust forestry, I’ve experienced enough hand-cutting and struggle on various projects clearing and weeding sites, it’s just plain tough. The financial rewards of arboriculture are better, though hardly spectacular, and I’m glad to be doing less hands-on stuff now for the business.

So, the foray back into the world of quoting and trying to find trees that have been surveyed and condemned, is hopefully going to be temporary.

I did find the ash I needed to in the end, all of which were suffering Chalara, and I found it much easier to look for the signs of disease than the sprayed-on marks that the tree surveyor had applied in pink. That should explain, to the eight per cent of you that are like me, why we are at a disadvantage to the other 92 per cent.

Colour blindness can be really annoying, not least because I might have been a successful fighter pilot by now, if I hadn’t failed their tests.

As if …