Choosing the right tree surgeon
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When choosing the perfect tree surgeon for your job, there are some key issues you need to think about. In this article, we’ll take you through them step by step.
- Check they have these essential qualifications
- Ask about other accreditations and membership
- Get a detailed quote from each tradesperson you’re considering
- For a top quality job - hire a specialist
- Ask these key questions
- Listen to the language they use
- Check that they’re using the right equipment
- Ask who will actually be doing the work
Let’s look at each of these in a bit more depth.
Check they have these essential qualifications
The National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) is part of the City & Guilds group and is the governing body which issues certificates of competence for tree surgeons. As a minimum, any tree surgeon you hire should hold the following certificates:
- CS30 – Maintenance of the chainsaw, on site preparation and basic cross cutting
- CS31 – Fell and process small trees
- CS38 – Climb a tree and perform aerial rescue
- CS39 – Use of a chainsaw from a rope and harness
- First Aid at Work
Tom Amphlett - of Woody Frith Tree Care - is an experienced NPTC-certified climbing arborist, with an excellent MyBuilder customer feedback rating. He explained why these qualifications are so important:
Anyone who is cutting at height, using a rope and harness, really needs to have these. It’s not a legal obligation, but if they don’t have them, they definitely don’t have enough training.
For example, they definitely won’t know how to conduct an aerial rescue, which is pretty crucial in terms of safety. It’s not up to the fire service or ambulance service to get them down from a tree - that’s the responsibility of the rescue climber.
There are enough tree surgeons who do have these qualifications for it to be a reasonable thing for the homeowner to expect.
You should also ask if the tree surgeon works to British Standards, and see if he or she can name the relevant ones. The two main British standards for tree work are:
- British Standard 3998:2010 Tree work. Recommendations
- British Standard 5837:2012 Trees in relation to design, demolition and construction – Recommendations
Ask about other accreditations and membership
It’s also worth asking whether the tree surgeon has any other qualifications - like a relevant degree or additional NPTC certification - that go above and beyond these.
Alternatively, are they a member of the Arboricultural Association (AA), the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) or the Royal Forestry Society?
Just bear in mind that membership of a particular organisation doesn’t necessarily guarantee a high standard of workmanship.
Ben Robinson of Clear Cut Trees is a tree surgeon with over ten years’ experience in arboriculture, and lots of excellent feedback from MyBuilder users. As he explains, it’s worth finding out exactly what ‘membership’ of a professional association actually involves:
Be aware that the concept of ‘membership’ can be abused a bit. For example, anyone can become a member of Arboricultural Association. Being a ‘member’ just means that you pay a yearly subscription and you get their newsletter and so on.
This is very different to being an Approved Contractor with them. For that, you need to go through very stringent tests that they set - assessors from the Arboricultural Association actually come onto site with clipboards - and it’s incredibly hard to get that.
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Get a detailed quote from each tradesperson you’re considering
Any tree surgeon should be happy to provide you with a free quotation, in writing. This quotation should break down exactly what’s included in the price.
For example, does the final price for the job include the hire of any equipment, stump grinding and all taxes?
In particular, check whether the quote includes the clearance and disposal of waste. Tree surgery often produces a large volume of cut material (branches, the main tree trunk, leaves and so on) which can be difficult and expensive for the homeowner to dispose of themselves. Tom says:
A good tree surgeon should always clean up properly after themselves. Even after a full fell, I try to leave it as if we weren’t there after the tree is gone. That obviously requires a fair bit of work - using a leaf blower - a lot of raking - but that’s the sort of thing people appreciate.
So it’s definitely worth a homeowner asking: To what extent do you clean up after a job - and is that clean-up included in the quote you’ve provided? If you set the standard you expect right at the beginning, the tree surgeon can try to work to it.
As Ben indicates, it will help the tradesperson if you’re really clear and specific about what you want done.
Virtually every day I’ll get a phone call where someone says ‘how much is it to cut a tree?’. Just that. For someone who’s never dealt with a tree surgeon before, the tendency is probably to think that trees cost a certain amount per tree - which just isn’t the case. There are so many different factors involved.
For example, you’re taking into account how you might access it, what species of tree it is… something like a conifer, for example, is far more dense than a broadleaf tree. You need to think about whether you’re removing the tree, and whether there’s a lot of heavy timber. A lot of disposal costs are based on weight.
That all means it’s very difficult to quote from photographs. So I would emphasise the importance of someone actually visiting the location, in order to give an accurate quotation. In my quotes I break everything down, tree by tree usually, and then I make clear whether material removal costs are included in these costs.
For a top quality job - hire a specialist
Ben advises against hiring a generalist to undertake tree surgery - particularly if the job is particularly difficult or delicate. He explains:
It’s generally best to avoid ‘Jack-of-all-trades’. A good gardener or landscaper may also be capable of doing tree surgery, but if you’re really conscious about getting a top level arborist to do your trees, I would look out for someone who does that and only that.
Tom also emphasises the safety aspect of things:
A general gardener may well not be covered by the correct insurance - and definitely won’t be properly trained to climb a tree with a cutting implement.
Anyone can climb a tree. It’s a lot of fun! But more than likely, a non-specialist will go up there with a ladder; and especially if they’re running a petrol chainsaw, it’s just very very dangerous.
Ask these key questions
Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. For example:
- What will their method be for removing the tree?
- How will the tree’s future growth be affected?
- How long will the job take?
- Is there a way of doing the job that will have less of an impact on your neighbours?
A good tree surgeon will be more than happy to give you detailed replies to all these questions - and may well suggest a range of different solutions.
They will also be able to demonstrate a thorough understanding of how the law applies to their job. For example, can they explain what tree preservation orders are, and how they might affect the work you want done?
Listen to the language they use
According to both Tom and Ben, the vocabulary a tree surgeon uses can be a useful indication of their level of expertise. Ben says:
If anyone says anything about ‘lopping’ or ‘topping’… steer clear! Those are very old-fashioned descriptions of work, and are definitely associated with the more cowboyish side of the work.
You should instead be looking for words like pruning, crown reduction, thinning, crown lifting, dead-wooding… that’s more modern, accurate terminology and indicates that people know what they’re doing and take pride in their work.
'Lopping and topping’ is considered quite dated, heavy-handed language these days. Of course, there are some older tree surgeons who are exceptionally good at their jobs and still use that sort of language. But if you meet a youngish guy who’s saying things like that - be a bit wary.
More modern, technical descriptions of tree surgery work include phrases like formative pruning, pollarding and coppicing. If someone explains a job to you using this sort of phrasing, it’s a promising indication he knows what he’s talking about.
Check that they’re using the right equipment
Take a look at the equipment your chosen tree surgeon brings with him to the job - and how he uses it. In particular:
- All those working on site should be wearing the right personal protective equipment. This should typically include a helmet with visor and ear protection, chainsaw boots and chainsaw trousers.
- Anyone working up in a tree should be wearing - and using - a harness and a rope.
Ask who will actually be doing the work
When each tradesperson comes to quote on your project, make sure you ask them who will actually be doing the work. You need to find out which aspects of the job will be carried out by the tradesperson themselves, and which elements will be undertaken by other members of his team, or sub-contractors. Tom explains why this is important:
I worked for a lot of tree surgeons before I went self-employed; I’ve been in the industry a long time. And I’ve found the companies that are generally best are the small ones. Because with a big company, the owner of the company is very rarely on site, and the guys who work for them are often being paid a rubbish wage, so - quite understandably - there’s absolutely no incentive for them to do a really good job.
That’s why it’s important a homeowner asks any tree surgeon they’re considering: ‘Who will actually be doing the work?’ I think that’s one thing I offer that some other companies don’t: The person who comes to quote is the person who’s going to climb.