Hours before the UK’s lockdown was introduced, Red Squirrel Tree Surgery began work to severely reduce an ailing London plane, a street tree owned by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC). It grows alongside a diplomatic parking bay at the east end of Cheyne Walk, a street boasting multi-million-pound properties and some of the most prestigious addresses in London. Carolyne Locher was present to document the operation.

A week before work is due to start, a parking suspension notice in Cheyne Walk displays the dates ‘March 23rd and 24th 2020’. Standing 30 metres high, the plane is unpollarded and not yet in leaf, with a trunk 1.10 metres in diameter at breast height. The camouflage bark looks healthy, the trunk thick and the structural limbs solid. However, the branch tips bearing monoecious (male and female) ball-shaped flowers look leggy, wispy and brown.

When I arrive just after midday on 23 March, Cheyne Walk is closed to traffic. Four works vehicles (and associated equipment) and six or seven team members are busy within the worksite. A Timberwolf TW150DHB chipper chips into the back of a 3.5-tonne tipper truck and brooms sweep up plane dust and sawing chip.

Approximately 15 metres above the roadside worksite drop zone, a lead climber, secured by a single rope, slowly backs along a lower limb, perhaps the fifth or sixth to be reduced. Finding a place from which to make the next cut, the climber settles, digs in climbing spikes either side of the branch, looks down and shouts, “Clear?”

Forestry Journal: Cheyne Walk London plane pre-works, browning tips of tip dieback.Cheyne Walk London plane pre-works, browning tips of tip dieback.

Members of the ground team step back behind the orange bollards marking the drop zone. Making a quick visual double-check, arb manager James Jenkinson replies, “Clear!” The buzz of a small Stihl MS201 chainsaw with 12-inch bar accompanies a fountain of chip falling earthwards, beating a metre’s length of London plane branch by milliseconds. Team members run forward to remove the log to an already considerable stack by the 18-tonne Mercedes grab lorry.

A Nissan Cabster MEWP platform, extended to 15 metres on a Palfinger arm, rests beside the tree’s trunk. The lead climber steps onto the platform, lowers it to the ground, steps off and walks to the edge of the drop zone. Understandably concerned about catching or spreading COVID-19, Fletcher Jenkinson, wearing a black mask under his helmet, is identifiable only by his eyes.

Red Squirrel Tree Surgery last met this writer two years ago at its depot and office in South Harrow. The invitation followed a chance encounter on a North London street, where bilingual teams were performing a severe reduction on a domestic customer’s large London plane.

That job was similar to this Cheyne Walk reduction in that Fletcher was the lead climber, supported by a team of six, performing a severe reduction (that tree was suffering anthracnose of plane) over two days.

Forestry Journal: Work gets underway.Work gets underway.

Today, his voice muffled by his face mask, Fletcher says: “This plane has been in severe decline for the past year but it is not completely dead. The borough tree officer suspects foul play. In this part of the world, residents dig down to build basement extensions and it is not uncommon to dig beneath the trees. There is no obvious reason why that tree should be dying. The tips are dying, so it must be a severed root.”

Red Squirrel’s Works Plan reads:

‘Oriental Plane (severe crown dieback);

Crown reduce heavily, retaining a final height of 13 m of scaffold limbs to allow for regrowth as tree is currently deteriorating;

Process/chip all branches into 3.5-tonne arb vehicles;

Cut cordwood into 12’ lengths for loading into HGV’

“We suggested a heavy reduction, removing the top of the canopy, reducing the need for the tree to seek more water and reducing stress on the roots,” says Fletcher. “By creating a smaller tree, the tree is allowed to come back. The likelihood of it coming back is 50/50, but I think it will. Some areas were very green and healthy. It’s just the tips that are dying.”

Forestry Journal: About to cut a metre length of London plane branch.About to cut a metre length of London plane branch.

For safety reasons, severed roots undermining the stability of the tree, Red Squirrel uses a combination of MEWP and climbing techniques. Ropes and rigging abound. Fletcher is climbing using the double-rope technique. He explains the reason for rigging: “Much of the material has to be rigged down and much of the canopy was dead. We have set up three pulleys in the canopy and a friction block at the base of the tree. One rigging line goes through all three pulleys (‘putting more rope into the system’) to reduce stress on the tree and the risk of branches snapping out.”

Forestry Journal: The buzz of a small Stihl MS201 chainsaw accompanies a fountain of chip falling earthwards.The buzz of a small Stihl MS201 chainsaw accompanies a fountain of chip falling earthwards.

The friction block at the base removes friction from the system. By wrapping a rope twice around the block, one groundsman can lower (approximately) a tonne of wood. “We are using an additional tag line to control the direction of the pieces that are lowered,” says Fletcher. “When you fell a tree, all lateral branches are removed right back to the trunk, leaving a nice smooth run all the way down. On this tree, we are leaving lower canopy branches – like pegs sticking out – and we have to lower away from where a rope or the loads will get caught.”

Some tree surgeons use slings to lower the cut branches. Fletcher uses a combination of slings and knots. “Sometimes I use a tip tie (lowering from the top using a half hitch and a timber hitch, a half hitch and a running bow line or a half hitch and a clove hitch) or a butt tie (half hitch and running bow line). For a cradle (used for lowering large sections or branches in a horizontal position) we use a spider leg (tying another multi-sling to the rigging line using a Klemheist knot), where one end goes to the tip and one end to the base and you tie both off with a bow hitch.”

Forestry Journal: Securing a rigging line around the branch, Fletcher shouts: “Clear?”Securing a rigging line around the branch, Fletcher shouts: “Clear?”

Fletcher is not wearing gloves, explaining in the risk assessment that gloves getting caught up when tying knots would make him feel unsafe. “It would be like having socks on my hands,” he says.

Remobilising the MEWP, Fletcher guides the platform up to a stem/branch union. From the platform he will remove a shortish branch – with brown tip-die wisps – near to the stem. On the ground, arb manager James pulls on the rigging line, raising one end up to the MEWP platform ready for tying securely around the branch.

Fletcher shouts, “Clear?” and James tightens the rigging line, wrapping it twice around the friction block. Double-checking the ground team are standing back, he responds “Clear!” When the branch is cut, James feels the line’s tension increase. He lets increasing lengths of rope slowly through the friction block, lowering the branch safely. The ground team saws it into logs for stacking by the grab lorry and brash twigs for chipping.

Forestry Journal: Manually separating log from tree and avoiding ‘pegs’ (lower canopy branches).Manually separating log from tree and avoiding ‘pegs’ (lower canopy branches).

By mid-afternoon, all the branches overhanging the road have been reduced. Five tonnes of logs and two-and-a-half tonnes of woodchip are driven to Red Squirrel’s yard in Ruislip for recycling into biomass.

At the end of the day, the coronavirus lockdown is announced. What ‘Stay at Home’ means for tree surgeons and works left half complete is unclear at this stage.

Forestry Journal: The ground team meets the branch before it reaches the ground, removes the rope and saws the branch into logs for stacking by the grab lorry and brash twigs for chip. Sweepings are deposited into one of three waste bags.The ground team meets the branch before it reaches the ground, removes the rope and saws the branch into logs for stacking by the grab lorry and brash twigs for chip. Sweepings are deposited into one of three waste bags.

The following day, we talk on the phone:

Q: You have left the tree half-reduced. Is it safe?

A: I don’t know. We had a phone call with the tree officer last night. I said we had left half a tree, that it looks ridiculous, like a psychopath has been in there. They said, ‘No, that’s it: no more non-emergency pruning work.’ It will stay as it is until the advice changes or the neighbours complain, I suppose.”

Q: What will happen to Red Squirrel’s work?

A: I need to do what’s best for the guys. Their anxiety levels are through the roof. Some want to stay at home, especially if they can receive 80 per cent of their wages. Aside from emergencies, we’ve stopped all council work and we are bringing forward work for domestic customers. From Friday (27 March) we are closing the doors until further notice. Scary times.”

Forestry Journal: Fletcher looking at the tree from underneath some fruit (cherry) blossom.Fletcher looking at the tree from underneath some fruit (cherry) blossom.

On 2 April, Red Squirrel returns to the Cheyne Walk site and its works are completed, leaving a 13-metre scaffold. Wearing a face mask and standing two metres away, Fletcher provides an update on what has happened within the company since the lockdown announcement: “We panicked. We employ 25 people, up to nine tree-surgery teams. We stopped all non-emergency works on council contracts until further notice and offered furloughed leave to staff that needed to self-isolate. With three teams remaining, we brought forward our private domestic work.”

The following week, RBKC called. “They offered us work in their open spaces: parks and cemeteries. We restarted our council contracts, implementing strict working measures and a buddy system. We have a ‘one vehicle (and team) in/one vehicle (and team) out’ system at the yard. The same team members always work together. They use the same vehicle and the same equipment and machinery day in, day out.”


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