The APF offers something different to everyone and no two visits are ever the same. Here, tree-care veteran Wiltshire Dave offers an account of his own day at the UK’s biggest forestry and arb show.

APF stands for the ‘Association of Professional Foresters’ (in case, like me, you didn’t already know).

I set off expecting to find a lot of bearded young men in T-shirts wishing they could afford the dazzling array of modern machinery, before retreating to the beer tent and trying to financially justify a 90-ft cherry picker for their business.

I’ve been in that position myself and, over the years, have walked away with a Posch wood splitter (twice), reels of chain (every time) and numerous smaller purchases that I didn’t know I needed until I got there.

Forestry Journal: We joined the crowds to see climbers of varying skill levels compete.We joined the crowds to see climbers of varying skill levels compete. (Image: FJ)

I’ve also, at various shows, given the impression (and my email) to several dozen sales people that I might actually buy an arb truck, tracked grinder or such that I know I can’t actually afford.

My wife and I set off early to get a look around before the crowds, and arrived late, having got lost in the Cotswolds for around an hour.

I like to think it was the out-of-date satnav and road atlas I used rather than the similarly afflicted wife, but eventually we managed to persuade an enthusiastic security team that we should be allowed in and were immediately struck by the vastness of the displays.

“Oooh, I’ve never seen so many wheelie bins,” Winnie said, missing the point slightly.

The first port of call was to visit the APF HQ, where Suzie and a dog called Remi greeted us, the former kindly making us a drink. Suzie, the partner of Ian Millward, APF exhibition secretary, showed us a photo of Remi inspecting a batch of larch for one of the demonstrations.

“We have to be careful,” she explained. “We can’t allow infected wood in and we are concerned about the spread of Phytopthora and other tree diseases.” Remi seemed at home with his job, though I’m not sure he really understood the ramifications.

Forestry Journal:  The bins which so impressed Winnie were supplied by Smiths Waste Management to deliver a ‘zero to landfill’ waste policy, boosting the show’s eco-friendly cred. The bins which so impressed Winnie were supplied by Smiths Waste Management to deliver a ‘zero to landfill’ waste policy, boosting the show’s eco-friendly cred. (Image: FJ)

I’d decided on the trip up that I wanted to speak to some female arborists (for professional reasons) and so, at 9.30 am, we headed for the pole-climbing arena, hoping to meet a female brave enough to attempt this daunting challenge. And there we stayed, because there were plenty.

The first, a young woman called Gajj, who looked understandably nervous, was about to embark on a practice climb with her partner, Johnny Laird, prior to the competition itself.

I watched as they prepared for the climb and interrupted to do a bit of journalism.
Johnny and Gajj (Egan) work together in a business called Ash Tree Specialists around York and I’m hoping to do an article on their relatively new venture in the future.

Meanwhile, I was impressed with the pair of them. Johnny talked his girlfriend through, calm and reassuring. She was also assisted by the Husqvarna-sponsored team as she psyched up for the practice.

“What is it like being a female in a male-dominated world?” I asked, partly because I wanted to know and also to help take her mind off the thought of climbing an 80-ft pole in front of an audience.

“Everybody I’ve met has been incredibly supportive,” she said. “But it is so hard – physically, I mean.”

Well, she’s not wrong there! Gajj went on to explain that every single piece of equipment was heavy, the physical demands were huge and that she had overcome those challenges with the help of Johnny and through repeat activity, gradually getting stronger.

Forestry Journal: Gajj Egan and Johnny Laird from Ash Tree Specialists.Gajj Egan and Johnny Laird from Ash Tree Specialists. (Image: FJ)

I wanted some photos for the article, but she completed her practice climb so fast I didn’t manage to get my camera out until her descent. It seemed she was better at her job than I at mine.

I spoke with Terry Bennet who runs the competition (with Husqvarna) as well as other events. He explained he had to bring together the insurance, the people, the physical setup and so on, into one business. 

“Insurance was hardest,” he said. “It was very difficult to find an insurer willing to cover for non-qualified pole climbers, usually those who aren’t tree surgeons.”

I assumed that he would be inundated with competitors on the day and asked as much, surprised at his response.

“Not so many. A lot of tree surgeons are unwilling to perform in front of the crowd.”

Shy tree surgeons? I wondered if I’d misheard, but then it dawned on me that it would be very easy to lose your credibility as a team’s best climber if you had a bad day and didn’t perform well.

I promised to return later to watch Gajj and cheer her on in the actual event and tore myself away to see what else was going on.

A few minutes later I was staring in awe at a Valtra tractor that was bigger than my house and my wife had fixated on a particularly nice wheelie bin (a blue one, I think).

“I want one like that,” she said, staring lovingly at the rubbish receptacle. Instead, I bought her a snack from one of the many outlets that left us spoiled for choice and wanting more.

I’m not sure I should name any of the exhibiting companies. There were so many that if I mention one it leaves too many out. I did notice, however, that my chosen brand of woodchipper is now available in astonishing black livery.

“I like the orange ones more,” Winnie said (but she’s a teacher, so perhaps the design team didn’t have her in mind).

Forestry Journal: Winnie and Ian Millward’s dog Remi.Winnie and Ian Millward’s dog Remi. (Image: FJ)

There were tents full of tree surgery gear (again, too many to mention) and the hard-working staff were probably too busy to talk to a journalist type anyway. We watched a small amount of the tree-climbing competition, utilising a nicely structured oak and a fellow ringing bells.

The problem with this, for me, is that it reminded me too much of a career I left behind, standing neck craned and encouraging an employee to contort himself into some arthritis-inducing positions to reach an impossible target.

But the chap up the tree was doing fine, encouraged from the ground by his colleagues, friends and a small, excited dog.

In the distance there was some forestry display which wasn’t part of my remit, so I went back to the pole-climbing arena, which fascinates me, to watch Gajj and the first competitors of the day. The competition is broken into three parts: tree surgeon, lady and expert.

It appeared the first heat contained a mix of these and the times varied between roughly 18 seconds and three minutes (at least while I was watching).

A forestry arb student called Daniel Scarr was the most popular with the crowds, not because he was the fastest but because of his dogged determination to complete the task. He has entered a few contests, not to win but to improve his time and show he’s capable.

That is the sort of determination that will make him an asset to someone’s business one day and if he reads this, good luck to you Daniel and well done! Gajj looked less nervous for her attempt, despite being up against an expert in the form of Lois Milburn who was faster but much more experienced. Gajj did well, her first climb in a competition and plenty of cheering. I think her time, was a credible 1 minute and 50 seconds. 

“That hurt,” she said afterwards. I could see her hands shaking with pain and I’m hoping she and Johnny will agree to feature in an article I want to write about tree surgery start-ups in the near future.

I spoke to Jack, who finished his climb and when asked by Terry on microphone why he had decided to enter the competition replied: “I wanted something to remember, not just go to the bar all day!” 


I hunted down Lois Milburn and cornered her in the Husqvarna tent (professionally, not because I’m in the habit of following women around tree surgery shows).

Lois runs a company called Miss Tree in Darlington and was probably the second-friendliest person I met that day. She was still pumped up with adrenaline and easy to chat to. “Someone gave me an espresso,” she laughed, trying to explain away her apparently limitless enthusiasm.

I asked what she did in her business. “We do lady things,” she said, teasing me a bit, I think.

Forestry Journal: Lois Milburn and Emma Cakebread.Lois Milburn and Emma Cakebread. (Image: FJ)

We chatted a bit about women in forestry and arboriculture and what she said about bias and prejudice stunned me.

“Mostly the arb world isn’t that prejudiced,” she said. “I’ve had a bit of that, but I’m pretty thick-skinned.”

“Who is the prejudice from?” I asked, wondering why my wife kept trying to ring me as I ignored the phone. 

“Some customers, quite often females, want to see a man doing the work. That’s why I chose the name ‘Miss Tree’, so people knew what they were getting.”

No mystery with ‘Miss Tree’, I thought, cleverly. I didn’t say as much, but would like to do another piece on her at some point, if she’s willing, that is. I slightly botched the interview with the whole phone-ringing business.

Emma Cakebread was getting ready for her climb. As a 27-year-old office worker from Shropshire, one might have expected her to feel out of place. “I’ve got a horse,” she told me, though I’m not sure why. Anyway, she wasn’t out of place, not if previous times of 13 seconds up a Douglas fir 80-ft pole are anything to judge by.

I went back out to find out why Winnie had been calling me. Turned out I’d forgotten to tell her where I was going and she thought I’d decided to leave her and go home.

A bearded fellow with a jocular bunch of mates was the 10th person that day to remark on my moustache and I lent him my special comb to try and sort out his own lesser endeavour.

“We’re from Lampeter Trees,” he said, Welshly. 

Ben, the Welsh chap, was the friendliest person at the APF (in case you were wondering who pipped Lois to the top spot).

There were at least five in his gang – Ben himself, Johnathon, Jake, Nathan and Sam – and I wasn’t sure if they were on a stag weekend or a works trip. They were very happy, not just with their weekend out, but with their employers.

“Lampeter Trees is the best company out there,” Ben said, absolutely serious. “It’s hard to get in, but they really look after their men.” All the others agreed, including the chap with a plastic axe who I think might have been the ‘stag’.

Forestry Journal: Ben and chaps from Lampeter Tree Services.Ben and chaps from Lampeter Tree Services. (Image: FJ)

I found that really heart-warming, a group of arborists who spoke with genuine enthusiasm for their employers and despite their excited and slightly noisy way, I really enjoyed chatting with them.

They even used the word ‘awesome’ when referring to their boss; perhaps if he (or she) reads this I’m sure they will appreciate the reciprocal loyalty and respect repaid by the company’s representatives at the show.

I decided I’d seen enough machinery, talked too much about chippers, tree tubes and wood splitters and headed to the part of the show that perhaps suited my new life better, the Woodland Crafts Area. The thing is, I loved tree surgery, running an arb business and all that entailed, but that was then and now is, well, now. I suppose.

‘Now’ I make stuff out of trees my son fells, so I was really excited to see the woodland crafts with the distinctive change of feel in pace and an entirely different atmosphere from the main arb section of the show.

I spoke with the British Horse Logging people and for some reason my journalistic recording system (an old notebook) managed to record only one name, ‘Frank’.

I apologise to the people I met. They were cheerful and friendly and I took some pictures but can’t remember names, other than Frank, who was a horse.

“Frank is a Shire, he prefers meeting people to doing any actual work,” the horse handler was telling my wife. For a minute I thought she was talking about me and wondered how she knew, but then realised she was referring to the animal, who was indeed the only one there (apart from me) not doing any work.

I spent far too long chatting to Neil Taylor of Taylor Made, who creates the most beautiful oak chairs using traditional and, I suspect, his own carefully honed techniques.

He knew a lot about wood, the drying process, how to work it semi-seasoned and use it without splitting or any post-production warping. He gave me a very valuable tip on how to fill knot holes in the most aesthetically pleasing way. I won’t share it (some trade secrets need to be maintained as such).

Forestry Journal: Neil Taylor of Taylor Made.Neil Taylor of Taylor Made. (Image: FJ)

I also met an NHS employee, Clinton Chaloner, and his charming partner Lynn, who make boats from solid oak hewn out (by axe and adze). 

“They float too,” he pointed out, showing me some photos, which included a 36-ft example. “But they need to be wet, to prevent splitting and leaks.”

Same as beer barrels, but not tree surgeons, I thought, looking at his hand-crafted oars and pictures of sculptures he’d created from an old Catalpa in Piccadilly.

There were plenty more, weaving willow, using hazel to make garden implements, wood turning on traditional spindle lathes, and plenty of old tools, but I became utterly transfixed by the wheelwright.

Phillip Gregson is a master wheelwright and was working and talking to the assembled visitors at the same time.

“I use ash for the rims, oak for the spokes and the heartwood of elm for the nave,” he told me, going on to explain that the ‘nave’ is called such because it is the meeting place (of the spokes) or the ‘hub’ if you are, like me, from the south.

Elm was harder to find, in big enough sections, he explained, planing vigorously at the ash part of the wheel as the steel rims heated on a fire behind him. He seemed a genuinely decent sort, really personable and had tales of a trip by horse and cart to southern France with his wife. 

I should have asked if his rescue collie Fan went with him, but was so enthralled by the wheel making, which he does for a living, that I forgot.

Groups of ‘proper’ tree surgeons passed through with the goods from the stalls beyond and I was pleased they too were interested in  the contrasting but strangely affiliated section of the show I was so excited by.

Tree surgeons don’t just chop down trees, drink beer and use expensive equipment.

They also take pride in what they do, have a great knowledge and understanding of trees, wood and their environment.

Forestry Journal: Husqvarna ensured there was plenty more to catch the eye around the pole-climbing competition.Husqvarna ensured there was plenty more to catch the eye around the pole-climbing competition. (Image: FJ)

Neither the arborists nor the craftspeople should look down on the other, and I really don’t think they do. There was a great deal of respect that I could feel between the two groups and a huge amount in common. In fact, it’s basically the same thing, working with the same material for the same ultimate goals, both financial and for the satisfaction of doing a job well.

The former career has ruined my back and hips and I pretty much collapsed, in a dignified and purposeful way, in the middle of the Woodland Crafts Area.

“Do you want my chair?” asked a kindly lady who was older than me and making rakes out of hazel with her husband.

That summed up the show for me. It was really friendly, atmospheric, happy, optimistic and empathetic. There were companies selling lamb’s wool and cashew-nut tree guards alongside businesses specialising in recycling the plastic versions.

Huge timber grabs, cherry pickers and wood chippers sat alongside (or nearby) horse loggers and chair makers. The theme, contrary to some opinions, was about skilled people taking great pride in what they do and caring about their end product; from a well-pruned tree to an environmentally friendly method of tree extraction and biomass reuse.

It was too much to cover in depth and I apologise for the missing bits, but having been absent from the show for a few years I was struck by how thoroughly well-organised and perfect it all was.

I don’t have any names of those who won the pole climbing, I’m sure they’ll appear somewhere, but those who took part inspired me. I want to do that again, not in some rain-sodden back garden in November and against a time scale that I’ve slowly realised isn’t going to make me money, but at the APF show – and in front of a crowd!

Maybe they should have a grandads’ category; I’ve still got all the correct tickets, and the granddaughter!

I had a lot of compliments. Apparently I had the best moustache at the show – I’m sure I heard several people say that, along with comments about my smart attire.

If someone asked where I felt most at home, woodland crafts or commercial arboriculture, I don’t think I could answer. I started in one part and ended up in the other, both in life and on the Friday I attended the APF, but I think I was just as happy in both.

It’s just a question of timing.