Jess Herbert has dedicated much of her working life to training the next generation of arborists. Here she tells us about her own climbing journey, safety in arb, and what the future holds. 

EA met vocational trainer Jess Herbert at the Arb Show 2023. On the Merrist Wood College stand, she was advising interested parties of the college courses best suited to their learning needs, re-establishing old friendships and making new contacts.

When asked if she would share ‘A Day in her Working Life’, one of an occasional series of features, she kindly agreed.

We speak in August during what could be the best day of Jess’s summer holidays.

Helped by arb community friends, her family and packing boxes arrive from Yorkshire ready for their move into a new home on the Merrist Wood campus near Guildford in Surrey.

This is not the only move Jess has been preparing for this summer. Having laid out her “precious” (Courant) tree climbing equipment ready for LOLER inspection, she continues with the task of arb department housekeeping; methodically itemising every piece of equipment and machinery that they use. This is in preparation for the faculty’s move into temporary workshop facilities this coming term before works begin on a new, purpose-built, state-of-the art facility (due to open in 2025).

Jess explains: “We are a young team, fairly new to the college. Housekeeping is an opportunity to make sure that what we have is fit-for-purpose and representative of what is needed in the industry. It is also an opportunity for condensing, getting rid of items like old boards showing types of decay or responses to pruning, that have been here for decades.”

Merrist Wood College is run by the Activate Learning Group. The 400-hectare campus benefits from an (approximately) 80-hectare woodland, including mature oaks, a resource the arboriculture department makes much use of during training. Arboriculture courses, on offer to students of all ages and abilities, include:
- Arboriculture Extended Diploma Level 3 (two years, full-time, suitable for 16–19+ year olds, mixing theory and practical units);
- Arborist Standard Apprenticeship Level 2 (two years, one-day-a-week (with blocks) focusing on practical skills and professional qualifications);
- Arboriculture Award and Certificate Level 4 (1 year): Diploma Level 4 (1 semester after completing the Certificate, one-day-a-week, theory and assignments, suitable for those already in the industry looking for a Higher Level qualification to access different opportunities);
- NPTC Short Courses;
- ‘Tree Surgery for Craftsmen’ (18+ year olds, eight-week intensive, focusing on practical skills (tickets) and some theory).

A vocational trainer with 17 years’ experience, Jess taught hundreds of students prior to the 50 she has taught at Merrist Wood since joining in February.

One of three in-house vocational trainers, Jess teaches practical skills (and theory when needed); chainsaw maintenance, crosscutting, tree felling, tree climbing, aerial tree cutting, and aerial rescue. 

“Arboriculture is probably the most expensive qualification for colleges to run. Working or climbing with chainsaws, the staff-to-student ratio is 1:4. In a group of four, not every student has the same capabilities. Some may find climbing easy and need stretching to the next level. Others may need extra support. You always adapt what you are doing to meet the needs of the learner.”

Learning basic knots and climbing theory in the workshop, groups then move out into the woods. 

“We make a VTA (Visual Tree Assessment) to ascertain whether the tree is safe. If it isn’t, we don’t climb the tree.”

Most of our oaks are safe and they begin with Jess building student confidence by asking questions such as, “What are you going to do now?”, “Have you thought of this?”, “How about trying that?”. 

Forestry Journal: Jess Herbert up a tree with students.Jess Herbert up a tree with students. (Image: Supplied)

“I ask students to not blindly follow everything I say, to try things for themselves and question everything. It’s about teaching transferable skills; giving students a toolbox of tricks to use in different situations, learning when they go into that toolbox which trick to use for a particular scenario. This takes time and experience to develop.”

In terms of support, if a student is anxious, Jess will climb and instruct from eye level. Female students can struggle at first to get up into a tree. 

“It is a strength thing, hard on the hands and physically demanding. But women listen and they are open to using different techniques, knots and equipment (foot ascenders and pulleys) to get up and move around the tree. On longer courses, I first teach chainsaw maintenance, ground-based chainsaw use, cross cutting and chippers, to improve strength and general fitness to prepare students for tree climbing.”

On the last eight-week course she ran, a student (with their climbing ticket already) was interested in learning single rope technique (SRT). “It was important to facilitate that. At the ARB Show, I had invited former student Leon Hottinger to spend a couple of days with us. I taught our students the basics and Leon (a member of the Canopy Climbing Collective who uses SRT and is considering becoming a trainer) was then able to take this particular student to a higher level, expanding their knowledge and confidence, while I concentrated on the other three.”

What happens in wet weather?

“When our new facility opens, arb students will have an indoor climbing structure to use when the weather is particularly awful.” Until then “if it is raining we get wet. Skin is waterproof and we are not made of sugar. That is how it is in the work environment”. 

Now 48, Jess grew up in Paris (France). Fluent in three languages, she was schooled in England. A dyslexia diagnosis did not prevent her going to college, and she went on to work as an executive PA in the City. 

“It taught me how to operate a computer, to type and the importance of customer service. All these skills serve me as a teacher. In my mid-twenties, I retrained in horticulture at Shuttleworth College (Bedfordshire). I found I could do arboriculture without it costing any extra money and discovered my passion.”

Working for six years on the tools (Milton Keynes Council, Treemenders [now closed] and Frosts Group [tree team]) revealed arboriculture to be “hard work, physically demanding, mentally gruelling and sometimes terrifying. It is dangerous work”. Also, that “we have the best office in the world, improving the natural environment safely and with passion”. Comments such as, “gosh, if only all the boys worked this hard” were not unusual.

Becoming a vocational training instructor was not intentional. Much like her invitation to Leon Hottinger, in 2005, Jess was invited to help out on a course at Shuttleworth College. She was persuaded to apply for a full-time position. 

“I got the job. When I heard myself accept, it surprised me.” She completed a Certificate of Education at the University of Bedfordshire.

Forestry Journal: Jess, wearing suitable kit, about to climb a tree with oak processionary moth.Jess, wearing suitable kit, about to climb a tree with oak processionary moth. (Image: Supplied)

Outside the classroom, Jess organised a group of students to enter local climbing competitions for the fun of it. When ‘Arb Jobs’ owner Nick Pott was looking to promote women in arboriculture, he persuaded Jess to join a women’s competitive climbing team. Because ISA competition geographic boundaries changed, Jess remains the Welsh Tree Climbing Champion.

She says that her best foot-locking time up a 40-foot rope in 22 seconds is: “Not bad! My preferred event was ‘Aerial Rescue’. Using different techniques and equipment, you have to out-think each other as to the fastest, safest, most efficient way to get the injured person down from the tree.”

Competing in European and international events, the highlight must surely have been representing the UK at the ISA World Tree Climbing Championship Competition in Rhode Island (USA) in 2009. 

“I was always older than most. Current UK and Ireland Champion Jo Hedger is ten years younger than me. We climbed and competed together. Being so very good, Jo would automatically go through, meaning we could send a bigger team.

“I was a nervous competitor, but it completely changed my life; travelling and seeing other ways of doing things, new techniques such as moving away from a prussic to using pulleys and foot-locking. More importantly, I became part of a very inclusive community and we have kept those connections.” Those met along the way include nine-time World Champion Bernd ‘Beddes’ Strasser, New Zealanders Scott Forrest and Jim Kilpatrick, the UK’s John Turnbull and many more.

In 2007, Jess moved to Moulton College (Northamptonshire). In a spare moment, she was involved in felling a tree on The Paul O’ Grady Show. In 2016, she moved to Askham Bryan College (Yorkshire) as head of horticulture. In another spare moment, she coaxed Countryfile presenter Anita Rani up a tree. Following a faculty restructure, she joined Merrist Wood. “The restructure offered the chance to see what made me tick. What really makes me tick is working with students, helping them gain confidence in the skillsets that set them up for a career that they love.”

What seems to set Jess apart is her willingness to support students beyond the classroom, creating for them the same sense of community she experienced when competing. For students who want to work abroad in Sweden, America or Australia, she facilitates introductions to contacts she has maintained, because: “There is nothing better than meeting students years later and seeing how they have developed, travelling or starting their own business, loving what they do and doing what they love. It is such a privilege.”

Ex-students reciprocate. A total of 20 climbers helped to run a recreational tree-climbing event at the 2023 Deer Shed Festival (Thirsk). 

“We ran five trees, helping around 600 children (and parents) to climb over two and a half days. By sharing our knowledge and skills with the general public, they may [come to] see arboriculture as a viable career opportunity.” Equipment support came from French manufacturer Courant, with whom Jess has fostered a professional collaboration for Merrist Wood College. That Jess’s husband Simon is an ambassador for Courant probably also helped.

Forestry Journal:

Members of the Canopy Climbing Collective are among those reciprocating students. Founders Simeon Balsam and Joe Hottinger met at Moulton College. Of the ‘Collective’, she says: “I am proud to have taught students who have become highly-skilled and highly-knowledgeable arborists who far exceed my skillset. It is a compliment. It is not for me to agree or disagree with the choices a student makes, although I relate to the desire to bring knowledge of trees and tree work to people who may consider it ‘grunt work’. The CCC demonstrate high-level technical skills to a younger following. Overall, they are doing a good thing.”

With the creation of state-of-the-art arb facilities, Merrist Wood student numbers are likely to increase. With sector forecasts of an increase in the number of future arb positions available, student numbers are not yet where they should be. Jess wonders if it could be “a lack of understanding among careers guidance advisors”, and suggests directly engaging with schools. To this end, Merrist Wood is working with the Arboricultural Association (AA) to improve the general understanding of what arboriculture actually is.

“Arboriculture is the knowledge and care of trees – from seed to senility. The topic is vast. In terms of longevity, arboriculture is a sustainable career. From a tree-climbing, chainsaw-toting arborist, you can go down the scientific research route, become a tree officer, a ranger or a teacher. Had I known at 16 that I could climb trees and earn money doing it, I would have been shocked.”

She acknowledges that the sector is becoming more supportive of women in arboriculture. “The Arboricultural Association ran a Women’s Arb Day at Kew Gardens, with discussions, presentations and the opportunity to network.”

Elsewhere, (Women’s) Arborcamp (run in the UK by Boel Hammarstrand) is “an opportunity to get together with like-minded female arborists, to share knowledge, ideas, skills and techniques, to feel like we have a proper part to play in the industry”. 

Could industry do more? “I would like more to be done to encourage people from ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds. Although it can be scary, this type of work is good for mental well-being, out in nature, working with trees, as part of a team, it’s so good for so many different reasons.”

Leading by example, Jess’s own career continues to develop. Last year, she qualified as an NPTC Chainsaw and Tree Climbing Assessor. This year, she became an Arboricultural Association ‘Approved Contractor Scheme’ assessor, attending a NEBOSH (National Examination Board in Occupational Safety and Health) National General Certificate (H&S) Level 3 to qualify.

Beyond the campus gates, she worries for student safety, particularly for those who, having finished their courses, join companies that are non-compliant with current HSE interpretations of ‘Working at Height’ regulations. 

“HSE requires everyone to climb on two systems. Companies that don’t comply may as well stop paying their insurance. They are not covered if they don’t follow basic legislation.”

Forestry Journal: Jess climbing with two systems.Jess climbing with two systems. (Image: Supplied)

Jess uses two systems when climbing. “Using single rope technique, you can get right out on a little branch and feel totally stable. To limb walk back in, using moving rope technique (with ZIGZAG or similar) is easier. I teach students to have a long-lived and sustainable career. I am strict and I don’t tolerate ‘muppetry’, because this is an industry that can kill if work is not done safely. I don’t want to hear that students I have taught have had accidents.”

A new term is around the corner and Jess already has her timetable. Her first course is a one-week NPTC ‘Tree Climbing and Aerial Rescue’. “Because we teach in blocks, ‘apprentices’ or ‘short course’ students may come to us on a Monday never having climbed before. By Friday, a student should be fluently moving around a tree, undertaking aerial rescues and be ready for their assessment.” Every student from July’s ‘Apprentices Level 2’ passed.

In addition to theory and practicals, Merrist Wood’s students are encouraged to engage with industry professionals via demonstrations and workshops. “Honey Brothers are generous with their time and knowledge. Their ‘splicer’ Sean Thompson is putting together a ‘splicing’ workshop for our students. Mediarb deliver our first-aid arb training.” Jess is hoping to establish an annual field trip, where students get to work alongside French forestry colleagues in oak woods managed on a 200-year felling cycle in the Foret de Bercé, Sarthe. “Being part of a new community and learning from them brings students so much.” 

Forestry Journal: Jess Herbert with her husband Simon, both helping people to climb trees for fun.Jess Herbert with her husband Simon, both helping people to climb trees for fun. (Image: Supplied)

Since joining Merrist Wood last February, Jess has divided her time between her family in Yorkshire and her students in Surrey. Moving into a house on campus brings to an end the long drives and allows her to continue as a residential warden, ensuring that residential students are safe in an emergency and supporting their mental health by offering a range of activities, including recreational tree climbing and a crochet club. “It helps students to feel that they are part of a family. I feel like I am part of the Merrist Wood family, which is not always the case in education.”

In September, the in-house team welcomes a new vocational trainer and assessor, Jess’s husband Simon. “I actually taught him,” she admits. “He was in my first year of adult students at Shuttleworth. I can’t wait to have us back working together again. There will be quite a bit of banter and quite a lot of competition.”