Meet Devons family of tree sergeants

Matt Yung at the top of a pollarded sycamore

Matt Yung at the top of a pollarded sycamore - Credit: Archant

Our Gardening Writer GILL HEAVENS meets the men who have made tree preservation and conservation a way of life – and a successful business

Rob Bawden in his younger days + the brothers Donald and Tony Bawden (centre and right), and workman

Rob Bawden in his younger days + the brothers Donald and Tony Bawden (centre and right), and workman Ron Webber, with their first chainsaw - Credit: Archant

Transport yourself back to the night that will forever define weatherman Michael Fish, the Great Storm of October 1987. The winds gusted at over 100mph causing devastation and destruction which included the loss of an estimated 15 million trees.

Some of the fallen were balanced precariously across power lines, cutting off the electricity supply to thousands of homes. So, who do you get to sort out this perilous mess? Well amongst others of their ilk, a family of tree surgeons from the Exmoor village of Brayford, that’s who. At 6am on the morning after the Great Storm a phone call was received in the Bawden household, who duly packed up their chainsaws and spent the next fortnight in Surrey supporting local crews.

Rob Bawden, now the Managing Director of arboriculturalists R.J. Bawden Ltd, was only 18 years old at the time and a rookie in the family business. It was an experience he will never forget and one he hopes he will not see again. Tony and Donald Bawden, Robert’s father and uncle, set up the tree surgery business shortly after completing their National Service. Tony diligently saved his wages throughout his military tenure and, once discharged, used the money to buy his first chainsaw. Rob still owns this machine although it is now considered a museum piece!

The brothers’ lucky break came when they were working close to where SWEB were repairing a power line. A tree needed to be felled, the electricity board asked them to do the job and they obliged. This chance meeting secured them a contract which continues to this day, although now with the new owners Western Power Distribution. This involves not only 24-hour emergency callout service, but also the continual assessment and making safe of trees adjacent to power lines in the area. By maintaining these lines any damage in the event of another Great Storm will be at an absolute minimum.

Mark Bowden and Arron Kitchen just hanging about

Mark Bowden and Arron Kitchen just hanging about - Credit: Archant

Initially Robert had no plans to follow in the family footsteps; in fact the grand plan was to become a lorry driver. As a stop gap he helped out and 30 years later is Managing Director! In the early days there was not much in the way of health and safety regulations, but over the years legislation has been introduced.

Once, at an estate at Shebbear, they were sent away by a shrewd employer to purchase full protective equipment before they were allowed to commence work. They returned with full safety attire, which was fortuitous as it turned out to be the day of Rob’s first chainsaw incident. The blade kicked back and hit him on his newly acquired chainsaw-booted foot. His uncle bandaged it and Rob did a full day’s work before stopping off at the hospital on the way home for stitches. They were tough cookies in those days!

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The two founding brothers retired 18 years ago and Rob took over the business with his cousin Pauline Little, who took on the administrative duties. Rob doesn’t climb any more, he quite sensibly leaves it to the youngsters these days. He currently employs seven men with varying roles including groundsmen and the more experienced climbers.

Before Western Power allows anyone to work on site there are rigorous rounds of certification including day courses, practical assessments and computer tests. Power lines, over-hanging trees and chainsaws are not a match made in heaven!

A climber and a groundsman make the perfect tree cutting partnership

A climber and a groundsman make the perfect tree cutting partnership - Credit: Archant

It is not just about the lines - Rob and the lads prune trees not only for safety but for the health of the tree and the glory of your garden. He says he can envisage how a finished tree will look before they have even started.

As with many well-honed skills, these chaps make arboriculture look simple, leaping about like gibbons in the canopy. However, rest assured, they know their trees and they know the rules. Rob believes you should have used a chainsaw on the ground for at least two years before you even consider going aloft.

So when the lights go off, think of the folk who are out there, in all weathers, making sure they get turned back on again. I think then you will agree we are very lucky Rob didn’t become the Yorkie Man after all!

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