A local crime spree prompts one tree surgeon  to conduct an investigation of his own into how common a problem crime is in the arb world – and what can be done about it.

I’VE been meaning to write about rural crime for ages because it affects tree surgeons and farmers (I am certainly one of those and, at a stretch, both). But I haven’t written anything until now and the reason is simple. I like my articles to be humorous – or at least I endeavour towards such – and crime really isn’t funny. So I put it off, filing the subject away as undesirable, at least in my head. 

Then, the other morning, I got a text. Apparently some anti-social types had just stolen a four-wheel drive, tried without success to rob a tree surgeon to the south of us and then – either by coincidence or not – a shop was broken into in a nearby market town. As well as this, a brave member of the public had their car assaulted with baseball bats when they tried to apprehend the perpetrators. Busy couple of days for the lads, then?

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Probably worth getting on with the article, I decided, it being so topical.

Times are hard, we all know that, and money doesn’t stretch far, particularly if you are too lazy to actually get on and do the one thing you can get paid for (like writing, for instance). But feeling the squeeze or not, I’ve never been tempted into any of the aforementioned, not just because I don’t fancy a holiday in prison but, well, because it’s wrong.

And tree surgeons are shouldering their share of the crime burden to such an extent I would be surprised if most of you reading this haven’t experienced crime in the past. I entitled the article ‘Rural Crime’, but I know it stretches beyond the countryside into the towns and cities. My own perspective, however, is a rural one, as I haven’t lived anywhere else.

Forestry Journal: Many an arborist has experienced the pain of having their 4x4 stolen. It's a lucky few that get them back.Many an arborist has experienced the pain of having their 4x4 stolen. It's a lucky few that get them back. (Image: eA)

I decided to ring a few tree surgeons from the south of Wiltshire and received a response from Lee Hibbs at Tree Technique. He hinted that he had suffered at the hands of criminals in the past, so I asked if I could go and see him.

It would have been helpful, a week or so later, if I’d allowed myself enough time to cross the Salisbury Plain and not stayed at home eating hot-cross buns, but I eventually arrived half an hour late at a well-fortified premises.

This, I decided, fitted the profile, so I battled past a guard cat, some defence donkeys, a dog and a curious-looking duck to find Lee in his office staring at what I think might have been a spreadsheet.

“Sorry I’m late, bad traffic.” I introduced myself, not mentioning the hot-cross buns or poor navigational skills.

Lee was affable, so I wasted some journalistic time talking about the tree world before asking about his personal experiences of crime.

“I’ve yet to meet an arboriculture business that hasn’t been turned over,” I said.

“Well, today won’t break that duck,” he replied. I stared out of the window, but the only other duck around had vanished.

I asked how many times he’d been robbed in the past 19 years of his business and was surprised it was only twice.

“The first time they broke in to our yard in the early hours, bent the bars on the shipping container and stole about £6,000 worth of kit,” he explained. “I thought we were safe, surrounded by houses at the time and a neighbour did hear them going through my kit. They weren’t even talking quietly.”

He went on to tell me that the neighbour was so at ease with the apparent confidence of the thieves that she hadn’t called the police. 

“She thought it was us,” Lee laughed, as puzzled as me as to why anyone would assume tree men might pull an all-nighter in their premises.

But it’s alarming, the sheer audacity and confidence of the robbers, seemingly so unafraid enough of the consequences as to not even attempt stealth. Lee said the criminals returned shortly afterwards to relieve him of his replacement equipment which he’d wisely stored elsewhere, knowing this might happen.

“None of it was insured, but I reckon I came out on top,” he said, with some irony. “It would have cost me more to have insured it over the years.”

Apparently the same thieves subsequently tried to rob Lee’s previous home address but were thwarted by a more alert neighbour and the police, who knew whose van had been that way due to CCTV footage, but couldn’t prove the known owners were up to no good.

Lee was keen to point out the police had helped at the first £6,000 theft, telling me he had no criticism and that they had sent forensic people and dusted for prints – but to no avail.

The point is that the authorities are limited by their financial and manpower constraints and I agreed with the director of Tree Technique that ultimately the onus falls on the arborist/farmer or equestrian holding to look after their hard-earned kit.

“What advice do you have? You obviously haven’t suffered as badly as some,” I said, thinking mostly of myself.

“Spend money, get decent safe premises and secure them with physical barriers and remote CCTV, it’s worth it in the end.” 

He’s probably right, particularly when he added that it isn’t worth the stress and security risk of having your kit at home, unless you do have the aforementioned security. Having said that, I used to keep all our saws in the kitchen and I quite understand that a new business doesn’t have money to throw at the problem. We both agreed a fledgling arb business has enough expenses already.

Back at home, I emailed Wiltshire Police with a few questions. First, I wanted to know whether the raids on rural premises were random or organised. I think I’ve been subjected to both – sometimes the odd item and occasionally something that felt more coordinated. The spokesperson, a police representative called Phil, reckoned that was the norm, a mix of planned raids and opportunistic thefts. 

I wanted to know whether thefts of chainsaws in particular were on the rise and Phil sent me a small table of recorded cases. Oddly, to me, it seems the rate of such has decreased, from 89 in 2017 to 59 in 2022. There was an explainer that the increase in quads and tractor GPS systems might account for the decrease in less valuable chainsaws. I suppose there’s only so much time and manpower available to  the criminals and they might have moved on to richer pickings. Or perhaps tree surgeons are just being more careful.

One tip I heard – I think it was from Wiltshire Police – is to spread your stuff out and hide it in different, secure locations so you don’t lose the lot in one go. This makes sense, but it is annoying and inconvenient if you have a 660 under the stairs, two top-handles in the attic and a pole saw in the shed.

Wiltshire Police couldn’t tell me where the equipment ends up, whether it goes abroad or is sold locally, but I’d hazard a guess that a lot of the hand-held power equipment is simply used by associates of the perpetrators themselves.

I used to carve my name, address and postcode on all my kit and when it was inevitably stolen waste the next few months peering at other people working locally to see if I could spot anything that was mine. It was a waste of time.

Wiltshire Police do recommend this though; along with using lock boxes, locked rooms, CCTV, good lighting around buildings and fitting electronic trackers to high-value items, there was something I hadn’t heard of – SelectaDNA.

I haven’t looked very deeply into this, but apparently it helps reunite owners with recovered kit and is part of Operation Siege, a partnership between the police and communities against thieves. SelectaDNA provides an advanced forensic marking which can be applied to products and, if they are stolen, used to identify their true owners.

Phil said all thefts and attempts should be reported which is something I wholeheartedly agree with. Personally, I think it should also apply to the half dozen attempts per week to hack my emails, internet, banking and so on, but that’s another issue.

I wanted to know if a dedicated detective could work to link all the crimes in one area and investigate them as a group to see if there was any pattern or common denominator, but Phil didn’t know if this was the case in Wiltshire.

In my experience the police officers that show up, often at night and usually with dogs and drones, are brilliant, but I worry that after the event there is limited resource for follow up. Apparently everything is logged, so perhaps some genius could feed it into a computer that could link it all up?

Forestry Journal: Modern CCTV options can discreetly and affordably keep an eye on premises.Modern CCTV options can discreetly and affordably keep an eye on premises. (Image: Stock)

At least these days there is a link-up across the county borders and – in our case – with the MOD police too, which is handy when so much of the county is covered by Salisbury Plain.

Over the years I’ve spoken with numerous victims of theft. There was Neil, robbed several times in quick succession and losing thousands of often uninsured equipment – even a Timberwolf chipper. A tree surgeon not 10 miles from me lost all his kit, replaced it and then lost the whole lot again less than three months later.

There have been tree gangs working here and staying overnight in Marlborough who’ve woken to find all their kit, including chippers, gone the next day from the hotel car park.
There are countless tales of arborists having chainsaws taken off site, when their own focus was on doing the work they were there for. That is particularly disheartening and I should know.

“How was your day, Dave?” 

“Oh, we earned £450 and lost £900 in stolen chainsaws.” One of these was stolen from the bottom of the tree I was actually standing in.

My own insurers (I can’t remember who they were) paid out around £6,000 after one particularly bad loss. It was annoying though, because after the claim I kept finding more items were absent, so I ended up out of pocket. The excess paid is troublesome too; often more than a chainsaw is worth, so no claim can be made for a one-off loss.

Chris at the Bartlett Group, which insures tree surgeons, kindly provided me with a few facts. Over recent years, 61 per cent of items were stolen from storage premises, 77 per cent of thefts occurred between 9 pm and 6 am, there was a 31 per cent rise in thefts from 2020 to 2021 and a corresponding 60 per cent increase in theft value in that period.

I don’t know whether that’s a COVID thing or a cost-of-living affair, but it’s a bit alarming and I wonder what 2023 will bring if it’s the latter. On the brighter side, there is something in our favour, which I touched on earlier.

When I started out in 1990 there was little access to CCTV and what there was, was prohibitively expensive. Who wants a £1,000 camera to guard a £200 saw?

Forestry Journal: Police check a tagged quadbike to ensure it isn't stolen.Police check a tagged quadbike to ensure it isn't stolen. (Image: Stock)

Well, that isn’t the case now. What’s really clever are these systems that link your mobile phone to the camera and send you an alert. We have those in the yard, along with conventional systems, locks, lighting and so on. As well as this, the driveway alarms will wake you up if you are on site, as we are.

Being outside, semi-naked at 1 am around Christmas 2022 with a torch, a son and a mismatched pair of slippers wasn’t much fun in -8 degrees of frost. Half asleep, confused and cold, I wasn’t particularly over the moon as we watched a van racing off into the night, but what did cheer me up were blue lights and a very large dog that I’m sure was part wolf.

What really made up for the nuisance wasn’t so much the prevention of financial loss to myself but the total wasted effort and futility of the three potential thieves.

Perhaps things will be okay from now on, but I don’t think I’ll be letting my guard down anytime soon and my advice to you all is to be the same. Don’t let them get away with your stuff. Remember how hard you worked to get it.

I’m not recommending confrontation – far from it – but get your kit secure, get it insured and spend what you can afford on anything modern that helps. You’ll be glad of it one day.