Article by: Gary Meadowcroft, Tree Services Manager at London Borough of Southwark
The role of a tree officer or tree manager is not well known outside our industry. Granted, those familiar with the arboricultural profession can differentiate between the roles of arborist, consultant and arboricultural officer, but for the majority of people, including services within local authorities, the responsibilities of arboricultural officers and the work we do are not well understood or publicised. When I tell people what I do for a living they look at me blankly until I expand a little, and even then I don’t think they actually get it. I also spend a lot of time speaking to people who have a voice for trees, and often they are suspicious about the local authority and its management of trees, failing to appreciate the work we do to protect the environment.
Arboricultural officers cover a range of disciplines in much the same way as consultants, with the principal arb officer/manager responsible for the management of the strategic and operational service. A key difference between these roles is the volume of trees arboricultural officers are responsible for in a small geographical area.
The arboricultural team at Southwark consists of two arboricultural officers, an ecology officer and the tree services manager (me). The borough is approximately 17 square miles and has 57,000 trees covering parks, housing, highways and footpaths. This figure does not account for trees in woodlands, and adding those to the total would see it rise exponentially. We are quite a small team for the number of trees we are responsible for, although I am sure many other local authorities are under similar pressure.
In the public eye
Managing trees in a public environment is a tough job since everything you do is in the public domain and up for scrutiny. We could liken Newton’s Third Law of Motion to the management of trees – ‘for every action there is a reaction’, but rather than motion we’re talking about emotion, and rather than equal or opposite forces, we’re talking about the opinions of the public on every decision taken by a tree officer.
By the time we come to undertake work on a tree, we will have gone through a systematic process of identifying the problem, the risk, the mitigation and what we can reasonably do to retain the tree rather than lose it. But the perception is that we just turn up and fell trees. The fact is we manage trees for the benefit of the environment, the green infrastructure, amenity, and as social and economic assets, to name just a few of the considerations, and in order to do that we manage risk. Naturally there are times when it is necessary to remove trees because other management options and risk mitigation measures are not appropriate, but again this follows a decision-making process, with felling being the last resort.
As tree officers/managers we work on a wide range of issues, including:
- pests and disease
- hazard surveys
- arboricultural impact assessments
- woodland management
For all of the above, a large volume of work is undertaken by committed and passionate officers to address the problems, liaise or consult with the public and ensure that the decisions we take are the most suitable for the benefit of the trees and the public. We use a range of sophisticated tools to assess the health of trees such as decay detection devices including the Picus Sonic Tomograph 6/12, PD series resistograph and motion sway sensors.
We also have a Cabinet Approved Strategy and are members of the London Tree Officers Association (for which I sit on the executive committee, the Biosecurity Working Group and the Canker Stain of Plane Working Group). As an organisation of tree officers and consultants we produce a range of documents for tree professionals to aid them in delivering tree management within their boroughs, something which could be better advertised in the public domain (see John Parker’s article on trees and footways, page 53). The general public is often not aware that we are working for the benefit of protecting the environment and trees, and that a lot of officer time is committed to producing such documents.
Working on the big picture
I recently met with a group of people about contentious trees in one of our parks. I had taken the decision to remove some trees on the grounds of safety as they were in poor condition and located on the edge of a footpath with a high foot and bicycle traffic fall. Following the assessment of the trees and careful consideration (including options for retention), I decided removal was the best approach and site notices were erected to inform the public. What followed was a string of emails and requests for a site meeting so that I could explain my decision. But if the role of the tree officer was better known then there would have been a sense of comfort that we are working to protect the environment. Removal of trees often creates opportunity for replanting to create a sustainable landscape with an uneven age tree mix that gets away from monoculture and enhances diversity, thus providing more resilience and longevity. During the meeting it was intimated that what I was actually doing was destroying the amenity of the area by removing mature trees and replacing them with young trees. However a mature landscape started life as a young landscape. It was hard work convincing them otherwise and they couldn’t see the risk I could see, regardless of the explanation. This, I think, sums up the general experience of tree officers as there isn’t the information or exposure to our jobs as tree specialists.
Some of the work we do can play a big part in the wider issue of tree management and the health of trees across the UK and beyond. Take canker stain of plane for example (CSP): this pathogen poses a threat to the planes of the UK if it reaches our shores, and based on what we know, this is most likely to happen from infected tools being brought back in to the country by arborists working abroad. I work as part of a team headed up by John Parker in London to monitor the pathogen. This work is important not only to protect the trees but also to provide important data to the Forestry Commission on potential sightings. So our work extends outside of the borough.
I was lucky enough last year to attend the first international workshop on CSP in Padua, Italy, organised by Treework Environmental Practice and Lucio Montecchio (see ARB Magazine 175, pages 64–69). This study tour provided invaluable information for the detection of CSP which I and others have since brought back with us to implement within our boroughs. This was an opportunity for tree officers and tree consultants to work together for the benefit of trees in the British Isles and is another facet of our work that generally goes unnoticed.
Promote the profession
Frustratingly, people seem to notice our work when a tree is removed or pollarded – and certainly in Southwark when the tree is linked to a case of property damage. The public perception will be that we have undertaken work which appears drastic and, in the residents’ eyes, unwarranted. So, what’s the answer to this? Consult? Notify? As a responsible authority we will notify and consult through different mechanisms including a Tree Management Strategy, which clearly sets out our aims and objectives, but this doesn’t always help because of the suspicion that we are overzealous in removing or pollarding trees as a precaution to avoid financial risk and property damage. The reality is we are very thorough when assessing a claim to ensure the right management approach has been implemented for an implicated tree. We need to better promote our profession and be seen as the advocates for trees and the environment that we are. Perhaps these days social media is an obvious platform because it is instant, accessible and often gets shared, ‘liked’ or ‘re-tweeted’ to name a few, and I think a good mechanism for starters is the communications team within a local authority who can promote the good work being done. After all, we are managing vast numbers of trees and making complex decisions whilst maintaining best urban forest practice and working with a diverse range of clients.
I think as an industry we can do more by building on the positive reaction by tree officers to the 2016 National Tree Officers’ Conference, working with national bodies like the Arboricultural Association and the Institute of Chartered Foresters, promoting the role of arb officers as the professional group who manage the largest urban forests in the UK and just as importantly, promoting collaboration with other organisations at a local and central government level.
Story first published in the ARB Magazine Summer 2017 – Issue 177.