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How to spot a cowboy and why it’s important to do so

1st July 2021

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Tree surgery is a dangerous business. You might think this statement is rather obvious, what with chainsaws, ropes and working at height being part and parcel of the profession, but more and more ‘cowboys’ are entering the market (and also the column inches of national newspapers when things go wrong…). This article aims to help you to sort that Stetson-wearing, horseshoe-throwing, tobacco-chewing cowboy from the professionals.

Where do the cowboys come from?
There are always people out there that will look at a profession and despite a lack of training, qualifications or foundational knowledge, think they’ll ‘have a go’. But when money is tight, or employment prospects are low, or even when economic uncertainty is on the horizon, you’ll find more chancers coming out of the woodwork and more willingness from customers to choose their tree professionals based on price alone.

The dangers of using cowboy tree surgeons
You could be putting yourself and your property at risk. Tree surgeons use dangerous equipment that requires specialist training to use properly. The cowboy operator will literally risk life and limb every time they do a job because they just don’t have the knowledge or skills.

Firstly, you could be putting your trees in danger. They may seem solid as a rock and impervious, but trees are actually quite delicate organisms. Just like us they bleed, can get infections and can die, all from a simple wound. Let a cowboy loose on your trees and the damage could be devastating. Unsterilised equipment, messy pruning, inadvertent jagged wounds, too much removed off the crown, and so many more rooky mistakes can impede growth, reduce fruit crops, or allow for infection or infestation to take hold. Your trees are in real danger when you let a cowboy hack at them.

Then there is the danger to you, your family and neighbours. Poor tree surgery can leave limbs less secure and more prone to breakage; it can affect the stability of your trees and make them more prone to falling in a storm. And, improper safety standards during their work could endanger not only the ‘cowboy’, but also anyone who happens to be around them and any property that is nearby.

Questions to root out those you should usher from your property
It’s sometimes awkward to ask someone to prove they are qualified to do the job they’ve just told you they can do, but it’s so important that you do in this case – so here are a few questions we would recommend you ask before allowing anyone to touch your trees.

  1. Do you provide a free written quotation? Your tree surgeon should happily provide you with a breakdown of what they intend to do and what this will cost. It is vital to avoid the cowboy’s preference for giving you one price verbally then attempting to charge you another once they’ve finished. If they are reluctant to give you a free written quote for the project, then say goodbye, shut the door, and breath a sigh of relief.
  2. Are you insured, and can I see your certificate? A professional tree specialist should be able to provide you with evidence of their employers and public liability insurance. The recommended minimum cover for their insurance is £5m. If they are not insured, or inadequately insured, you may not be financially protected should things go horribly wrong and people or property are harmed. Make sure you call the insurance company to check whether their insurance is valid, some cowboys use fake documents or cancel thier insurance once they recieve the certificate.
  3. What qualifications do you all have? Every member of their team should be trained to work with the dangerous equipment and under the dangerous conditions. The National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) provides tree surgeons with their training and they should all, as a minimum, have certificates in maintaining a chainsaw, felling and processing small trees, tree climbing and aerial rescue, use of chainsaw at height and first aid. Generally, the more training the tree surgeon commits to undertaking, the more pride they have in their workmanship.
  4. What professional organisations are you a member of? There are a number in the UK, but the main two are the Arboricultural Association and Lantra. Though voluntary, companies that are members of these professional organisations have agreed to live up to the standards expected of their members.
  5. Have you any references you can show me? Any arborist or tree surgeon worth their salt should be able to provide you with a folder full of references from happy customers. If they are reluctant to do so, then think twice about using them.

If the team standing in your doorway are unable to supply you with suitable answers to these questions, do think about the risks to trees, property, and people that hiring cowboys might result in.

To find out more about the reasons why you should only use a professional team of tree surgeons to look after your trees, call us on 0208 292 8992. We’re here to help.

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