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

I’VE written about wasps in the past and no matter what they do for the environment they are every tree surgeon’s worst nightmare up a tree or atop a ladder, and now, apparently, there is the Asian hornet as well, whatever that is.

I’ve been stung a few times and don’t seem to suffer too badly, but, living in rural Wiltshire, the men I work with and I have experienced issues with much larger varieties of animal.


Inevitably, the local police always seem to arrive here when something escapes, usually a cow, sheep or some such beast and I’m quite used to traipsing around the countryside, having been disturbed of a summer evening.

“There are reports of a stray horse/goose/swan/pig; can you help us catch it?”

Yes, of course I can. I’ve written about it in the past and, to be honest, it’s quite fun.

A few months ago I answered the door at midnight to two young ladies dressed for a night out in heels and tight-fitting tops. Half asleep, I listened as they asked the inevitable;

“Are you missing any sheep, there are three on the main road?”

I wasn’t, I ate all mine 12 years ago and explained as much, well, not about eating them, but that I didn’t have any.

“I’ll get some boots,” I sighed, reluctant, but up for an adventure (if sheep catching can be classed as that).

“Oh, don’t worry;” said the second lady. “We can manage.” They left, chattering excitedly and presumably adding the adventure in real time to Tweeter or Tok-Tik; everything needs to be relayed immediately these days, but not for me, I went back to bed.

Coincidentally, the escaped animals were in almost exactly the spot where the same incident had occurred a couple of decades previously, and several times since. Perhaps the actual farmer involved will improve his fences one of these days?

It was summer, probably 2001 or 2002, and I was working locally with a fellow called Harper. I liked the man; he was loyal, hardworking and made up for his unimpressive physique with determination and enthusiasm.

We’d been hedge cutting, it was hot and we were headed for home at the end of a tiring and boring day when, rounding a slight bend in the road, we almost ran over a small, frightened lamb.

“What the hell is that?!” Harper exclaimed, much to my surprise. He had after all been brought up in the next village and his family worked in agriculture.

“Err, it’s a sheep, Harps.” I tried not to sound too sarcastic, but probably failed.

I bumped the Land Rover up onto a bit of verge and quickly came up with a plan. I’m not usually a fast thinker, I wouldn’t have made the grade for the army or services, but when it came to errant farm animals I had plenty of experience.

The secret is to be decisive, calm and non-threatening and to give the creature time to understand that you aren’t a threat.

“Go to the back of the truck, block the gap between the vehicle and the hedge and I’ll herd it towards you then we can grab it,” I ordered, opening my door to begin the operation.

Harper was strangely quiet and didn’t budge, so I turned and looked to see what was up.

“Are you sure?” he asked, in response to my querying look.

I was. It was a good plan and I didn’t have time to re-think it, the lamb was bleating and headed across the opposite carriageway.

“Quick, it’ll be run over in a minute,” I shouted, exiting the door and leaving my assistant to do the same.

I frantically waved at the oncoming traffic and despite it being a 60 mph stretch of road (double that if you own a sports motorbike), the lead car driver put on their hazards and stopped.

They didn’t get out though, sometimes people do but in my experience it’s better that no one helps; like I say, I’m quite proficient and random helpers just get in the way.

As the traffic started to build up in both directions I finally managed to coax the lamb into my trap, Harper waiting in the small gap between hedge and truck, and me gently cajoling the animal towards him. The distance was closing, the sheep starting to realise that time was up on its adventure and victory was ours for the taking, just one lunge and I’d have it.

The lamb looked at me, glanced at Harper and decided – quite correctly – that he was the softer touch. With an anguished bleat of fear it turned and ran straight towards my fellow shepherd. Harper, who a split second before had adopted the pose of a hockey goalkeeper, turned and ran.

The frightened animal made a break for freedom, but hadn’t counted on me. I dived into the nettles, grabbed a handful of wool and held firm.

It was over and I deposited the lamb back over the fence to a grateful mum sheep who’d followed the proceedings with motherly concern.

Brushing off a few twigs and scratching the numerous nettle stings I asked the obvious question:

“Why did you run away, Harps?”

My colleague was suitably ashamed: “Oh, I nearly had her, but she went for me …”

Several years later there was a far more dangerous situation and my turn to behave incorrectly, but for completely different reasons.

I was up in a small lime tree on the edge of a local village, bored, thinning and allowing all the branches to fall into a small paddock adjacent.

It was warm and the day wasn’t really unpleasant for any other reason than just being plain mundane and I watched as an assistant (another Tom again, I’m afraid) clambered over a semi-collapsed barbed wire fence to gather up the branches.

The field was rough, patches of nettles, discarded farm machinery and some low-hanging hawthorn on the far side. Presuming the field was empty I thought nothing of the minor trespass, it was necessary and I wasn’t really that interested in Tom, other than halting my work to give him time to clear up.

And then I saw movement under the hawthorn.

At first I thought it was a horse, but to my delight I realised the large, brown, curly-haired monster was in fact a Hereford bull.

I should have shouted, just to give Tom the heads up, but he was a rural sort and Hereford bulls in my experience are usually fairly placid. So, for my own entertainment I settled into my harness and waited to see the look on Tom’s face when he spotted the beast, knowing that his start of surprise would break the monotony slightly.

The bull, which had been enjoying a bit of shade, spied Tom and ambled out of cover.

It was still all a bit amusing, but I had no way of knowing that this particular bull didn’t conform to the norms of its breed, either that or it was having a bad day. Mine was getting better, but as I gleefully looked on it was starting to look a lot like the comedy value was about to be usurped by something more sinister.

The bull did a sort of double-take when it realised that Tom was actually on its side of the fence.

What’s more, it did that thing that bulls only do in old ‘Carry on Camping’ films – it pawed at the ground and added some snorting.

It was all wasted on my colleague who was happily immersed in some music, delivered through his ear defenders. Tom had his head down, picking up brash and mouthing the lyrics to his background track – a happy employee, oblivious to the four-legged monster that was becoming increasingly irate.

And there was me, watching the whole thing unfold, mesmerised and conflicted.

The thing is, I wanted Tom to be chased – and possibly even butted – by this bovine monster, but I also didn’t want it to happen, not least because it was incredibly dangerous and reckless of me to want anything but a safe and happy ending.

So I did the right thing. “TOM …” I shouted. “THERE’S A XXXXXXX BULL!”

The employee didn’t hear me, instead focusing on his music and jigging gently to the sounds of Mumford and Sons, or some such.

The bull was scratching at the ground and bellowing, it was definitely on the move, juddering forward from its pawing operations into a sort of loping trot.

“TOM!” I screamed, but to no avail.

I started waving my arms, shouting and gesticulating, not least because the bull was now cantering and had a rough ETA of around five seconds. Panicked, I ripped off my helmet and hurled it with surprising accuracy, making contact with the endangered groundsman’s own hat.

“What the … ?” exclaimed the man, his head swivelling as I pointed desperately at the ‘what’. It was at this point that I could really settle down and enjoy the fun; safe in the knowledge that I’d done everything I possibly could.

From my ringside seat the view was marvellous. Tom hurled down his rake and made for the fence, the bull at full gallop closing fast. I wanted the groundsman to make it, but again, it would have been nice to see a bit of a butt to help him over the barbed wire. It wasn’t to be, though it came jolly close, Tom clearing the fence in a magnificent leap and the four-legged one screeching to a halt before cantering off on a series of head-tossing victory laps.

It took a while, possibly as long as a week, before I actually stopped sniggering and smiling at what happened and to this day, writing the story now, I’m still grinning.

There are more tales in the same vein, involving goats, a very dangerous dog, at least two swans, horses, pigs and even a wallaby and a donkey. I can’t really fit them all in, so maybe I’ll add one every now and again, in case the tree topics become too samey.

But, as I started telling you at the beginning, I’m not the only one up for a challenge.

The two young ladies who vanished into the night in pursuit of the sheep were gone for some time and I think I must have drifted off to sleep. It was nearly an hour later when I was awoken by excited giggling and by then I’d forgotten all about the midnight shepherds. Pulling back the curtain I saw them striding back towards their car, which was still parked on the side of the road with its hazards flashing.

In the intermittent strobe-like effect I watched as the two women approached, both of them much the worse for wear. The nicely dressed, fashionable partygoers were a mess, clothes untucked and shoes muddied. Hair that had been styled was now less so, and I’m sure the perfume may have changed from Chanel or whatever, to ‘Farm’.

I sort of waved and they spotted me from their roadside spot, waving cheerfully back and looking distinctly happy with life.

I get it too, there’s nothing quite so rewarding as dealing with animals, all types and for all the stuff that’s happened with the beasts over the years I’d happily deal with the four-legged or feathered types over the human variety.

In fact, it has all worked out now. My new career – writing stuff and making wooden things – means that most of my day is now spent with three border collies. It won’t be long before the sheep down the road escape again, but I won’t be using the dogs to help catch them; I’ll just wait for the next carload of partygoers!