The Highlands of Scotland are hardly considered the home of arboriculture, but since launching his own business nearly 20 years ago, Alban Thom has been kept busy, dealing with storms, conservation projects, landscaping and much more.

ALBAN Tree Care is a Nethy Bridge-based arboricultural, woodland management and consultancy business set up in 2005 by Alban Thom. From the company’s Highland base, a full range of tree services is offered, as well as sawmilling, wood chipping, consultancy and survey work. Alban is also passionate about woodland ecology. The company works with both domestic and commercial sector clients, operating in the Highlands, Morayshire, Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

Alban did not immediately see a future career in arboriculture on leaving school.

Instead he became a snowboard instructor and for a while ran a school in the Cairngorms, before moving to the Alps. However, the work was very seasonal and having a young family persuaded him that a change of career might be wise. 

Having always been interested in trees and woodlands, arboriculture was a natural choice for him. Alban grew up surrounded by some of the most amazing pinewoods which, although they were plantations, came close in his mind to what the ancient Caledonian forest looked like. He had his own personal playground as a kid, spending countless hours exploring and climbing trees.

Forestry Journal: From left to right: Dismantling a dead elm – something that Alban has done many times.From left to right: Dismantling a dead elm – something that Alban has done many times. (Image: Supplied)

“As a mature student I was able to start at HNC level and enrolled for Arboriculture and Urban Forestry at the Scottish School of Forestry at Balloch near Inverness,” said Alban. “Year 2 was HND, at the end of which I had the option of staying on another year to gain a degree in Sustainable Forest Management with Arboriculture and Urban Forestry. Having come this far it was a no-brainer.

“I really enjoyed my time at the college. The tutors were great having had careers in the arboriculture and forestry industries spanning decades. They had a wealth of practical knowledge, experience and plenty of stories to share. It is a great way to build a solid foundation gaining an understanding of where the industry started, has evolved, and where it is heading.”

After leaving forestry school, Alban was faced with the task of finding work that would allow him to put into practice all that he had learned. However, he found that in the Highlands his options were limited. 

“Although tutors kept reminding us that we could start at management level on leaving college, I felt that to be fully qualified would require several years’ experience on the tools to understand how everything worked and appreciate all the links in the chain,” he said. “There was a lack of big companies to work for, so I had to create my own company. Setting up the business was a gradual process during my studies. From the beginning of my course I started to be offered work in the industry as a sub-contractor, which gave me insights into how the industry worked, how to deal with different scenarios and organise jobs.

“At the same time, I started to pick up my own work, which I did with a pal from college who was on the same course. I was also working for a landscaping firm with a chipper, and after some time they decided to sell it, so I bought it and it really changed the way I worked. It was a 1997 Entec 750 kg tow behind (the company later became Timberwolf). It was a great, simple machine that I kept for a good few years, sold to one of my former sub-contractors, and although no longer used, it still runs.”

While some of Alban’s clients would be happy for the brash to be left, others wanted it removed. The local wildlife park was always willing to take it for its animals, but removing it from sites was still awkward and time-consuming. Alban found the chipper helped make waste much easier to deal with and transport.

Alban built up a lot of his knowledge while working for the landscaping firm which was involved in tree work and would bring in tree surgeons who Alban would work with as a groundie and sometimes as a climber.

He said: “One job was for a construction firm and involved removing big sitkas that had been planted around a garden boundary but were shading out the house and had really got too big for the location. A crane was organised and my job was to attach a crane line to the top of each tree from a cherry picker, then cut the tree halfway down. Each tree was lifted out in two pieces and then lined up in a field for snedding and chipping. 

“The job went smoothly and was amazingly efficient. It was great experience to work with a crane and invaluable to gain skills such as lowering and rigging. Working with my friend from college also allowed us to pick up a range of jobs. I remember dealing with quite a few dying elms. Some of them were huge, so we quickly learned we needed more kit and bigger saws to be able to tackle such jobs.”

Back then Alban used a website to advertise his services and to try to get work. However, he soon found it became quite costly, while others who spent more got further up the listings and were therefore more likely to be chosen by clients. Also, Alban’s Highland location meant that sometimes enquiries came from too far away for him to be able to take them. He chose to focus on local advertising, building up a reputation for doing good work to allow his client base to develop over time.

Forestry Journal: Alban and Coby.Alban and Coby. (Image: Supplied)

He is honest enough though to admit that dealing with the paperwork side of the business is not something that has come naturally to him. He said: “We got a fair bit of coaching, as part of our course, using spreadsheets and so on, but it was only once work started to build up and I started to feel more pressure that I realised I maybe wasn’t cut out to do all the administration side of things. It was still early days though, so there was no-one else to help. I just had to get on with it to make a success of my business. I still do not like it much, but I have gotten used to it.”

Alban has always invested in equipment along the way, which made jobs easier and brought in more work, but it took a few years to build up a customer base and reputation. Having used the Entec 750 kg tow chipper for five years, he progressed onto operating with a tracked chipper in the form of a GreenMech 150. This machine’s adjustable track made it ideal for working on embankments and could offer good ground clearance. He was impressed with the machine and has stuck with GreenMech since, now running the bigger 19-28 SAFE-TRAK, fitted with a winch.

In the early days, Alban started out with tipping trucks and well remembers a custom-built Land Rover 130. “It had a galvanised chassis with a winch up front,” he said. “I had a tipper body made and we fitted it. It was a great working machine but not so great when you had to drive longer distances. I kept it for six or seven years, but despite maintaining it, it became less and less reliable and had to go. It was good to go back to a two-wheel drive VW Crafter tipper, with a tool locker, cruise control, air con, and space for three people in the cab.” 

Forestry Journal: A very large Scots pine to be dealt with after Storm Arwen.A very large Scots pine to be dealt with after Storm Arwen. (Image: Supplied)

Alban has a number of pickup trucks and tipping trailers. He likes the flexibility offered, making it possible to leave the trailer on site with the team while he nips away to see other clients and price jobs. He said: “I have always plumped for Ifor Williams trailers, as they are well thought out and built to cope with the work that we do. I’ve had a few pickup trucks of various makes over the years, but I am currently using a Nissan Navara which has been great for towing and going off road.”

A recent equipment investment for Alban has been a mini digger with timber grab and stump grinder attachment. 

“I opted for a Hyundai R25Z-9AK from HRN Tractors which weighs just over 2.5 tonnes. It ticked all the boxes with the additional piping for attachments and hydraulic hitch to speed up switching between attachments. I went to Field and Forest for the grab and stump grinder. The grab is an Intermercato, which is Swedish built, light but strong and a Baltrotor fixed rotator. The stump grinder is built by Klou and is well engineered and finished to an impressive standard.”

Alban has found that it has been a great addition with no more heavy lifting and the opportunity to bring in lots of work for his business, particularly if he wants to take on digging jobs, something that he has been doing more of.

“Digging jobs vary from regrading ground to digging ponds,” he said. “I have some interesting work coming up creating ponds as habitat for all sorts of aquatic invertebrates – newts, toads and frogs, as well as insects. It will also include work to create the right conditions for ground-nesting bees. In the future I also hope to get dam-building work, which has now moved to mechanical means.”

Forestry Journal: Enlisting the help of a pal with a forwarder to lift big sections of Cypress over a roof.Enlisting the help of a pal with a forwarder to lift big sections of Cypress over a roof. (Image: Supplied)

Alban has had tractors with winches and timber bogeys in the past, which he found useful on commercial sites and the odd domestic jobs too. Currently though, he does not have a tractor or bogey. “While useful, they were not always used regularly. The digger and grab have eliminated the need for a timber bogey in most scenarios. I am working on finding a tractor for this year’s upcoming woodland restructuring and it looks like there may be a chance of getting a timber bogey with it. It is still a useful set up to have for small forestry jobs and when there is big timber to move.”

On the saw front, Alban uses both the big brands. “I like to use the best tool for the job, so I have both Stihl and Husqvarna saws,” he said. “I have been using the Husqvarna T540i XP as my main climbing saw for a few years now. There are many advantages to using battery power, from no fumes, less vibration and noise to better communication with the team on the ground. When Stihl launched the world’s first electronic fuel-injected chainsaw, the MS500i, a few years ago, I had to get my hands on one.

“It is an amazing saw with incredible pickup, reaching full revs instantly. It has proved reliable and we have bought more. I have stuck with saws that I know are reliable and have parts readily available. I believe in paying for quality, which in turn saves time and stress in not having to deal with breakdowns.”

For climbing, Alban and his team have been using the Moving Rope Technique (MRT), primarily as when Alban was trained up this was the method used for accessing trees. He feels it is also a versatile system that can be applied to many different situations and scenarios. More recently, the team has moved to climbing using Single Rope Technique (SRT), which involves using mechanical devices and ascenders.  

Forestry Journal: Moving logs with the Hyundai R25Z-9AK mini digger.Moving logs with the Hyundai R25Z-9AK mini digger. (Image: Supplied)

“There are a number of advantages,” he said. “The main one being that you use your legs to climb rather than your arms, so it is quicker and less tiring. It is not ideal in every situation, so we still use MRT too. SRT is also better on wider crowns, where your rope hangs out from the stem. Having said that, dealing with say a single-stemmed conifer it is not so great as the rope is close to the trunk, so as you use ascenders to effectively ‘walk’ up the rope, you are bumping your knees and feet off the stem.”

Like many arborists who climb, Alban has tried and used many of the top brands of climbing equipment. “I have now settled with Courant and Teufelberger, as I have found them durable. I look for the lightest rope as it helps when you are advancing and need to throw the line. The Teufelberger Xstatic, for me, is made for SRT and is very low stretch. It has been a great addition to our kit.” 

Some Alban Tree Care clients include land agents such as RTS, Smith Gore, Strutt & Parker, Scottish Woodlands and Savills. His company also looks after a number of church grounds and graveyards, taking care of the trees within. There is forestry work too, such as dealing with edge trees, oversized trees and tackling precision felling that harvesters are unable to do.

On the domestic front, the team deals with a real variety of trees and situations, from the biggest to the smallest, crown reductions being especially common. Alban Tree Care has also been involved in many infrastructure projects ranging from substations to new hydroelectric schemes. This has led to a few interesting and challenging jobs.

Forestry Journal: The first delivery of equipment to the new hydro scheme on Loch Lochy.The first delivery of equipment to the new hydro scheme on Loch Lochy. (Image: Supplied)

“Recently, we had to create a landing area for barges to drop off all the machinery and equipment required for a job on Loch Lochy,” he said. “This meant we were first on site and we saw the first delivery of excavators on a project that will take 10 years to complete.”

Alban is particularly proud of the work his team has carried out for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

“We have been working for the RSPB for about 14 years on woodland restructuring,” he said. “The forest at Abernethy National Nature Reserve is made up of plantations of, luckily, native species, but mixed-age class. The issue is that in each stand the trees are the same age and there is a lack of diversity, in terms of species. They are predominantly Scots pine with heather and blaeberry, but are lacking broadleaves such as silver birch, alder, willows and rowan. The canopies are up high, with no low or ground cover and a real lack of deadwood. 

“We were brought in to create deadwood, both standing and fallen. There are different species of insect that colonise either fallen or standing deadwood, hence the need for both. In the past we have felled trees, climbed and high topped them to leave standing dead stems. We have built dams to block old forestry drainage ditches to restore the water table to its original level and improve valuable pine bogwoods. Currently we ring-bark pines to create standing deadwood.

Forestry Journal: The GreenMech 150 and 19-28 SAFE-TRAK.The GreenMech 150 and 19-28 SAFE-TRAK. (Image: Supplied)

“For fallen deadwood we use a tractor and winch to pull pines over. Very few pines are blown over here so we replicate windthrow using a tractor and winch to uproot and disturb the soil. Sometimes we create larger areas of wind throw, other times we thin the woodland to increase light levels to the field layer.

“One of the main species we are trying to encourage is Capercaillie. By uprooting trees, the birds can have dust baths and access grit to ingest, the fledglings can get shelter in the fallen canopies from predators and the weather. 

“More recently, a group called Cairngorms Connect has been created which consists of neighbouring landowners with an ambitious 200-year plan to enhance the habitats, species, and ecological processes across the 600 square kilometre area.

"Our work for the RSPB is part of Cairngorms Connect and we have worked for other landowners such as Naturescot too. This year we have planted a lot at altitude – over 10,000 scrub and Montane willows, aspen, and birch.”

Going from snowboarding instructor to running his own arboricultural business has been quite a change, but it’s not something that Alban regrets, even if he rarely gets the chance to switch off.

He said: “Your mind tends to always be working in the background, so every now and again you’ll recall the need to contact someone, do a quote, go visit a client, etc.

"When you’re not thinking that you have this or that to do, you’ll have clients contacting you outside of business hours. Most Fridays you get calls after 5 pm and the odd call before 9 am on a Sunday. We live in a national park so there are a lot of second homes here and often people are only around at weekends.

“My son Coby has just joined the team and is working to gain all the practical tickets required for the job, but he will also be studying arboriculture. I look forward to him taking an increased role. I see the business expanding into multiple teams. This will mean more vehicles, chippers and machinery to be as efficient as possible. The only real issue with running your own business is being able to get some time off.”