Tree surgeon market trends

Tree surgeon up a tree removing branchesDomestic work

Much of the 2000s saw a steady rise in interest in landscaping and gardening for a number of reasons:

  • gardening became one of the most popular leisure activities and enjoyed widespread coverage on TV and the radio, in magazines and newspapers
  • people wanted their gardens to be stylish places in which to relax
  • the housing market was healthy, with many new properties being built and others being renovated
  • consumers enjoyed increases in personal disposable income

Furthermore, growing interest in conservation and environmental issues emphasised the importance of planting and preserving trees in both rural and urban landscapes.

The late 2000s saw the property market suffer a sharp downturn and the economy weaken considerably, reducing the amount of money many people had to spend on non-essentials like gardening. Things stayed very difficult financially during the early 2010s, with unemployment rising and people doing their best to save money wherever possible. But trees keep growing regardless of what the economy does, so there was still work available for good well qualified trades-people. The housing market and the economy began to pick up during 2013, and the recovery continued throughout 2014.

The economy continued to strengthen during the first half of 2015 but then slowed in the second half of the year and into the first half of 2016. The recovery in the housing market has mirrored the general economy, continuing on an upward trend but losing some momentum towards the end of 2015 and into 2016.

As a result of the increased economic uncertainty following the Brexit vote in June 2016, consumer confidence in the economy fell and the housing market became sluggish. The economy and the housing market continued to perform poorly throughout 2017 and into 2018 as household budgets came under strain due to inflation and limited real growth in wages putting pressure on consumers' disposable income. Consumers have tightened their belts and have shown a tendency to spend on experiences and entertainment rather than on big ticket items, reducing opportunities for the tree surgeon sector. Little change is expected in 2019.

In recent years more and more people have installed wood burning fires and stoves in their homes as oil and gas prices have risen. Strong demand has driven up the price of firewood, so it's probably well worth making sure you sell any spare logs you have for burning - particularly hardwoods. If you're short of time you could probably find a buyer for cut lengths - say three or four feet long - or large rings, or you could add value to them by cutting, splitting and perhaps seasoning them yourself. Bear in mind, though, that there has recently been criticism of wood burning stoves and open fires because of the air pollution caused by their emissions. In 2018 the government launched a consultation which could lead to restrictions as part of its clean air strategy, including the requirement that only dry, properly seasoned wood is burnt.

Non-domestic work

General interest in the outdoor environment and landscape design has also prompted many businesses and organisations to invest in tree planting and maintenance. More and more local authorities recognise the importance of maintaining and improving the surroundings we live and work in too.

In the farming industry, the launch of countryside stewardship and environmental stewardship grants has prompted farmers in many areas to invest in woodland and forestry planting, hedgerow management and general conservation measures.

Tree disease

Sadly recent years have seen trees in the UK increasingly affected by two serious outbreaks of disease - chalara fraxinea (ash dieback) and phytophthora ramorum (sometimes referred to as sudden oak death). As well as ash and oak trees, other species including larch have been affected, and comparisons have been made with the catastrophic outbreak of Dutch elm disease which began during the late 1960s. Other tree diseases causing serious concern in some areas of the country include acute oak decline and massaria disease in plane trees.

While few people who work with trees could be at all happy about these outbreaks of disease, they have provided some extra work for tree surgeons and arborists. However, they have also created opportunities for 'cowboys' to pressure home owners into felling trees which may not need to be cut down.

Safety and quality

As with other similar industries, the tree services business is plagued by the activities of unscrupulous 'cowboys'. Anyone can set up in business as a tree surgeon - cowboy operatives generally have no qualifications and limited knowledge and experience. Many deliberately rip off their customers.

A number of measures have been taken by both trade bodies and the government with the aim of educating customers and stamping out the cowboys. For example:

  • many local authorities publish advice for householders on finding and engaging a tree surgeon. Some publish lists of properly qualified contractors in the region
  • a British standard, BS 3998, covers most aspects of tree work (BS 5837 covers trees in relation to construction and demolition - tree surveys when designing and building near to trees)
  • it is a legal requirement for professional chainsaw operators to undergo an assessment of competence in the appropriate area/s of work and to hold a certificate to demonstrate this. The national standard scheme for assessment and certificates of competence is administered by the National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC), an awarding body which is part of City & Guilds (an alternative training and certification scheme is run by LANTRA)
  • the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publishes information specifically for the tree services sector, working through the Arboriculture and Forestry Advisory Group (AFAG)
  • trade bodies such as the Arboricultural Association offer 'approved contractor' status for properly qualified members

LANTRA, the skills body for the environmental and land based industries, promotes training, skills acquisition and qualifications in the sector and offers specialist training aimed at raising standards in the tree and timber industries.

Other initiatives set up to marginalise the cowboys include the government-endorsed Trustmark website and the Buy with Confidence - Trading Standards Approved scheme, both of which enable users to search for reputable trades-people (Buy with Confidence traders are vetted and approved).

Keeping up with developments

An excellent way of keeping up to date with developments in your industry is to join a reputable trade association. Joining an association is also a very good way of demonstrating your professional integrity and commitment to quality. The following organisations represent the tree services industry in the UK and promote quality standards among their members:

  • The Arboricultural Association, which represents both tree surgeons and arborists
  • Institute of Chartered Foresters, a professional body for foresters and arborists
  • International Society of Arboriculture (UK and Ireland Chapter)
  • Royal Forestry Society
  • Forestry Contracting Association

Other bodies exist to represent the wider landscaping and horticultural industries, including the British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

You can find out more about the above industry bodies on their websites.

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