Government-imposed measures to restrict the spread of COVID-19 have impacted on the arb industry in a myriad different ways. And, while many one-man operations and small businesses have been able to keep operating with social-distancing practices in place, it’s the larger operators that appear to have been most drastically affected. Dr Terry Mabbett spoke to Arb Approved contractor Arborcare to find out how its business has changed during the lockdown.

THE UK may have been in lockdown since March, but trees have not stopped failing and falling just because the human race is in the grip of a lethal virus. Pests and diseases which affect our trees, such as bacterial bleeding canker of horse chestnut, chalara ash dieback of common ash and oak processionary moth, continue apace, hatching and chewing, infecting and spreading – at the present time, largely away from the arborist’s eye.

The government’s definition of essential work is by no means clear, but it would be difficult to justify general arb work (like knocking back to the knuckles several years’ growth on common lime pollards in the precinct or routine tree management at a sports facility currently not in use) as falling into the category. However, trees collapsing across roads, on houses or showing signs of threatening to do so are obviously a completely different matter.

I was interested to know how much ‘essential’ arb work was going on and what sort of measures were being taken to conform to government diktats on social distancing and to avoid or minimise arb-injury situations during this COVID-19 pandemic.

Forestry Journal: Arborcare was called out during lockdown to deal with failing lime trees at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.Arborcare was called out during lockdown to deal with failing lime trees at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.


Complying with these new safety requirements would appear to be most challenging for the larger arb companies operating multiple teams with three to four people sharing one vehicle, multiple kit-sharing and with up to 30 or more guys (and gals) reporting for work at the depot at the same time.

To get an idea of what has been going on, I spoke with Adam Pike (operations manager) and Brian Cole (project manager) at Arborcare Tree Surgery and Landscape Management at Stevenage in Hertfordshire. Arborcare is one of the bigger arb-contracting companies in Hertfordshire and no stranger to essentialARB.

Shortly after lockdown began, Brian told how Arborcare had already furloughed almost its entire team comprising six three-man arb teams plus office staff.

“We are maintaining a skeleton crew to deal with emergencies and essential call-out work from local authorities, like Dacorum Borough Council, North Hertfordshire District Council and St Albans City Council, with which we have long-standing contracts,” he said.

When I telephoned again at the end of April, Adam and Brian were out on a job in St Albans following a report from a council-house owner about an unsafe tree in close proximity to the property. Adam said it was a Leyland cypress, with Brian adding how the tree was supporting a dangerous limb which someone had apparently tried to saw off, but subsequently left cut part-way through and now posing a high risk of breakage and total collapse.

Forestry Journal: Lime trees at Hatfield House were in a serious state of decline, with one tree showing evidence of Ganoderma disease.Lime trees at Hatfield House were in a serious state of decline, with one tree showing evidence of Ganoderma disease.


Brian and Adam were operating according to the government’s strict, two-metre distancing rules, wearing appropriate PPE and, where possible, ensuring one task and one set of equipment is exclusively handled by a single operator only. That meant Adam did all the cutting with exclusive use of all saws, chainsaws and handsaws, while Brian did the dragging and chipping. Both men wore rubber gloves.

“We travelled to the job in separate vehicles and will go back to the yard in the same way,” said Adam.

“All equipment will be disinfected and non-cleanable PPE items like rubber gloves will be disposed of safely,” said Brian.

Since lockdown began, the pair said they had dealt with a number of failed beech and sycamore trees and lime trees in an advanced state of decline. Work on the failed lime trees was carried out at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. One of the trees showing evidence of Ganoderma disease on the buttress was cut down and removed and the other pollarded on a short stump.

One interesting episode was the sudden drop of a big oak branch from an otherwise apparently healthy tree. ‘Sudden drop’ was well known in English elm back in the days before Dutch elm disease, but much more unusual in English oak.

Arborcare was also called out by a local authority client to deal with a hawthorn tree which had failed and fallen on to a grave in a local cemetery. Some might not regard this as essential work, but as Adam pointed out, at this time many people are taking the opportunity to visit the graves of lost loved ones and reflect on the ongoing situation.

“We did a risk assessment and decided it could be completed safely by one man so I went out, cut up the tree and removed it from the cemetery,” he said.

One of the most urgent jobs was a big plum tree which had crashed into the front door of a residential property, preventing exit and entry (and providing perhaps the ultimate lockdown experience for the unfortunate owners). It was promptly dealt with via the same tactics of separate vehicles and no cross-use of machinery and equipment.

Forestry Journal: Vehicles not in use have been put on SORN with the insurance reduced to fire and theft only. Arborcare’s Mitsubishi Grab truck fitted with HMF crane is seen here lifting oak logs at Victoria playing field in June 2019.Vehicles not in use have been put on SORN with the insurance reduced to fire and theft only. Arborcare’s Mitsubishi Grab truck fitted with HMF crane is seen here lifting oak logs at Victoria playing field in June 2019.


Looking ahead, I asked Adam and Brian how they saw the situation evolving once lockdown is formally lifted. “We are discussing and planning for this scenario at the moment, so we will be ready to put in place safe procedures and policies for our workforce,” they said, adding how working procedures will clearly not revert to the old standard for a very long time, if at all.

“We envisage two men per vehicle, but only after both have been tested and confirmed negative for COVID-19 at a local virus testing station,” they said. “From then on, these two guys will become an inseparable team, staying together for both travelling and on-site working with exclusive use of their own machinery and equipment, and where practically possible always seated or standing two metres apart.”

There may well be need for repeat coronavirus testing of both team members at appropriate time intervals thereafter.

Brian and Adam continued: “There will be no joining up of teams and no shared use of machinery and equipment outside the designated pair of arborists. Disinfection of all kit will become standard procedure and we will have to develop a clear policy on the wearing and use of rubber gloves.”

“Simply wearing this item of PPE is clearly not enough,” said Adam. “We require a sound, strict policy on wearing (putting on and taking off the gloves) and how long one pair of gloves should be worn before renewal and in relation to the work being done. Otherwise we may simply make a bad situation worse.”

Forestry Journal: Trees fail and fall down anywhere – even in the cemetery – wild Prunus (plum) shown here.Trees fail and fall down anywhere – even in the cemetery – wild Prunus (plum) shown here.


The Arborcare management team has clearly thought long and hard about the new COVID-19 safety scenario. The underlying practical reasons for the company coming down so hard on safety are enlightening. Despite all the safety procedures introduced and adopted by the arb industry over the years, practical arb work not only remains inherently dangerous but throws up situations where social distancing is impossible. Adam and Brian have considered not only the direct risks from the virus, but also the related implications if their guys have to seek medical assistance for injuries sustained while the virus is rampant.

“If there is an accident up a tree or on a MEWP, then at least two guys will be required to come into physical contact with the injured arborist to get him safely down on to the ground,” said Adam.

“Even a nick to a finger or thumb with a handsaw will invariably require a stitch, meaning our guy has to go to hospital at a time of high virus transmission, putting himself or herself at even greater risk and being forced to self-isolate for 14 days thereafter.”


Arborcare’s current policy is focused entirely on keeping its workforce safe and is helped by what Adam describes as a highly efficient HMRC operation. The company applied for the government’s furloughing grant on the first day it opened and quickly received the money to pay its workforce for the period covering the initial lockdown.

Brian said they will also apply for the government-backed loan facility for small businesses (up to £50,000), while taking advantage of the opportunity, on application to HMRC, to defer the next VAT payment. The company has put all vehicles not in use into SORN and downgraded the insurance on such vehicles to fire and theft only.

Having recently met all the working arborists at Arborcare and seen how they enjoy their work, I enquired as to how they were faring on furlough. According to Adam, and as you might expect, boredom is the main problem, but they had set up a WhatsApp group to keep in touch.

Let’s hope the country’s current state of IT (inertia and torpor) evaporates quickly, so the other IT (information technology) can be put back in the drawer and arborists at Arborcare can get back to doing what they love.

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