There’s a new name in mechanised arboriculture. PH Land Management has entered the tree care game, and it’s brought with it some big machines. We went along to find out more. 

WHEN it comes to providing high-quality mechanised tree care, there’s a new name in town – and not one you might expect. 

Preston Hall, an estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh, will be best known for its manor house, walled gardens, and arable farmland. But in a bid to maximise year-round revenue, staffing, and to reduce its reliance on a fluctuating market, it is adding another string to its bow.

PH Land Management will see the farm’s machinery and operators carry out mechanised arb jobs such as the felling of disease-infected ash trees using a recently purchased Merlo Roto, initially on its own land before it branches out further afield, having already tackled several tasks for Midlothian Council and other local land managers.

The upcoming launch of the separate wing of the business comes after nearly three years of planning, brought about by the simple fact that farming alone isn’t enough to pay the bills in the same way it once was. 

Pointedly, the people behind the new endeavour are clear that they don’t want the business to replace the area’s existing tree surgeons, instead hoping Preston Hall’s ability to invest in the high-value kit can complement their offering, tackling trees no climber should, like those infected with ash dieback.

“We don’t want to compete with the tree surgeon who is cutting trees and hedges in Edinburgh,” Will Callander, whose family has managed the estate for more than 200 years, said. “We want to have the big kit that will support a tree surgeon to make it safe and make it quicker, and possibly enable jobs that weren’t previously possible.

“We are trying to encourage land managers and farmers that it is worth taking out dangerous trees. It’s not worth the risk of having decaying ash trees along roadsides and areas with high levels of public access. As a farming business ourselves I am fully aware of how easy it is to delay carrying out the work until ‘next year’ by which time the scale and cost of the problem has increased.

Forestry Journal: Preston Hall’s machinery also includes a number of Case tractors, such as this MX135. Preston Hall’s machinery also includes a number of Case tractors, such as this MX135. (Image: ea/Jack Haugh)

“We’re not here to take work from tree surgeons. We are here to work alongside them.”

The struggles of the UK’s farms will be well known, even to arborists, and it’s for this reason that Will decided to explore the idea of tree care as a means of tackling a fluctuating market. 

“Farms have to diversify,” Will, 33, said. “There are no two ways about it.

“Last year, farming made very good money across the UK in most cases. Because of what Putin was doing in Ukraine, prices went through the roof to about £350/tonne for wheat and crop yields were good. Now it’s back down to £180/tonne.

Forestry Journal: The Merlo has already been put to the test across Preston Hall’s estate. The Merlo has already been put to the test across Preston Hall’s estate. (Image: ea/Jack Haugh)

“It’s not the fact that farming doesn’t make money. In a good year, a farm can make money. It’s the volatility that comes with it.

“We have always been a traditional farm. We used to have livestock, but we sold the cows about 10 years ago. We ended up with a streamlined arable business, which means a lot of kit, a lot of demand in the summer months, but less so in the winter. So, it’s a big fluctuating cycle.

“We were looking for projects we could do to even out that demand for labour throughout the year, so we could keep good people all year round.

“We looked at all sorts of things. We looked at farm contracting. We looked at winter contracts with snow clearance.

“For various reasons, we settled on mechanised arb. Having been in London and the south-east I saw the devastation of ash dieback. The first signs of dieback I saw at Preston Hall were in the first lockdown.

Forestry Journal: The GMT easily took care of some Scots pine and beech. The GMT easily took care of some Scots pine and beech. (Image: ea/Jack Haugh)

“I wanted to combine the knowledge I had of the disease and the fact we have the tractors sitting here for half the year doing virtually nothing.

“We spent about two and a half years looking into it, a year and a half of that being me doing the sums and wondering if it was completely crazy.”

When Will eventually landed on the conclusion that no, it wasn’t completely crazy, he began to look around for the perfect kit. Several brands, including JCB, were considered, before landing on a Merlo Roto 50.26 S Plus, supplied by Wm W.M. Rose, and a Field and Forest Machinery-fitted GMT 050 grapple saw.

For a while, Will believed Westtech was the way to go, until a visit to see arborist John Lawrence – owner of Dryad Arbor-Artists and a Merlo Roto specialist – convinced him of the benefits of the smaller grapple. 

“I was previously pretty convinced the Westtech was the way to go because of the build quality,” Will added. “But it was speaking to John Lawrence, who said that while the GMT is smaller it is far more nimble. Nothing will beat the Westtech on larger jobs. But on taking off limbs, the GMT is great.” 

Elsewhere, a 14-tonne Botex trailer was purchased second-hand from the Scottish Borders, which is used to shift the wood and can be attached to several of the farm’s Case tractors, including its MX135.

Forestry Journal: Much of the estate’s timber is turned into woodchip, some of which is used to power its Heizomat boiler. Much of the estate’s timber is turned into woodchip, some of which is used to power its Heizomat boiler. (Image: eA/Jack Haugh)

On arable farms trees and woodland are often overlooked as historically they have not been financially viable to manage. With increasing prices of timber and biomass, many farm woodlands are now viable to actively manage. So, what has been the reaction from his farming colleagues to the tree-care move?

“Some have been brilliant and think it’s a great idea,” Will said. “Others are still reluctant to take on the dangerous trees on their farm.

“There is a fear in the cost of it and the fear of the unknown. And also the belief they can deal with it using their own kit at no cost.

“The honest answer is that it has been a mixed response. One interesting thing I’ve found is that, being arable only before, farming is still 15 years behind the curve when it comes to health and safety in the UK.

Forestry Journal:  A 14-tonne Botex trailer is used to move felled timber. A 14-tonne Botex trailer is used to move felled timber. (Image: ea/Jack Haugh)

“It’s an issue we have that we are going to have to sort out. Moving to arb and forestry has been fascinating to see how it all fits together.”

On the day essentialARB joined Will at Preston Hall, a combination of illness and dreich weather had put paid to the jobs he had lined up to show off the Merlo’s capabilities. 

Instead, operator Alastair Hogg was found taking a couple of roadside Scots pine and beech to task.

A challenge that would have taken a climber a considerable period of time was completed in a matter of minutes, the felled timber neatly stacked out of the way and ready to be collected by the firm’s Botex trailer at a later date.

“I’ve always had an interest in forestry and tree care,” Alastair said. “Being used to telehandlers and forklifts, operating the Merlo comes fairly naturally. It’s just a bit further away than what we are normally used to.

Forestry Journal: Operator Alastair Hogg has been impressed by the Merlo's capabilitiesOperator Alastair Hogg has been impressed by the Merlo's capabilities (Image: eA/Jack Haugh)

“It’s different, but it’s still operating a machine accurately. The basics are the same. It’s just a different machine and a different job to do.”

“We’ve been impressed with Field and Forest Machinery. Chris [Clark, product specialist] has been very helpful whenever we’ve had any queries. He’s there on the phone. That helps when we are getting used to it.”

Will, too, has been impressed by the Field and Forest Machinery experience.

Before heading back to Preston Hall’s offices, Will took essentialARB a little further along to a beech woodland, where he had lined up some thinning work. Previously, this would have been an arduous process, likely involving a winch, and just as likely to see some damage done to the forest floor. But not with the Merlo. 

“We’re not smashing things all over the forest floor. We’re not having to put tractors in here. Even if we fell something along the line of the road, we can still lift it with the Roto.

“If there’s a choice between felling a tree from the ground or leaving a monolith – cut by a climber – the latter is going to be two, three times the cost.” 
It isn’t just the savings on money and time that the Merlo benefits. In this particular woodland, Will took care to point out the first signs of naturally regenerating beech. 

“The amount of regeneration in here is amazing,” he said. “If we had tractors in here, we would be trashing it. We are trying to preserve that little bit more of natural regen.” 

Having their own estate is also hugely beneficial to Alastair and the rest of Preston Hall’s new tree-care team. 

Forestry Journal: Will Callander has high hopes for the arb businessWill Callander has high hopes for the arb business (Image: eA/Jack Haugh)

“It means I can send Alastair out down a track and say go and do something on your own, don’t worry about me watching, don’t worry about anyone else watching.” 

Felling and collecting its own wood offers more than just safety and aesthetic benefits to Preston Hall. Some of the timber – which will be stored in a yard space that was previously vacant – will be chipped and used to power a Heizomat boiler, heating both the home and grain drier. Chip not burned for this will be sold on, with AW Jenkinson among the farm’s clients. Unchipped timber is packaged up and delivered to a range of buyers.

As for the future, with talk of a sawmill possibly setting up in the local area, Will hopes that one day its timber could be turned into all sorts of creations, bought and sold within walking distance of the estate.

“On paper, all the ingredients are there,” Will said. “It’s a hell of an investment we’ve taken on, but it is one that can benefit more than just us.”