Pioneer sows the seeds at Wintec for New Zealand arboriculture training
Martin Herbert laid the foundation for arboriculture education in New Zealand at Wintec.
He pruned trees before chainsaws were widely used, played rugby against Italy and even dropped tree paint in Lord Jonathan Guinness’ eye, but the memory Martin Herbert is most fond of is his role helping to grow arboriculture education in New Zealand.
Martin launched New Zealand’s first arboriculture course at Waikato Polytechnic (now Wintec) in 1988, laying the foundation for what has become a thriving and increasingly respected profession.
“I remember those first few days very well, figuring out what we should include,” he says. “We ended up starting with a 20-week course. We got about 15 students for the first intake, mostly older guys, some with forestry backgrounds and some who were working for councils doing gardening.”
The Hamilton-based course sowed the seeds for New Zealand arboriculture training, which is now offered through NZQA-approved programmes at three educational institutions and via the Primary Industry Training Organisation which uses a range of private training providers.
Martin first got into arboriculture in Sussex in 1971, at the age of 20, when he saw a job in the local newspaper for a company called Southern Tree Surgeons.
“I thought this is about trees and the environment – things I believe in. It involved climbing and all that physical stuff I enjoyed, and I did very well at it.”
At that time in the United Kingdom, tree management was in its infancy and people were free climbing without harnesses, using handsaws instead of chainsaws, and carrying paint pots wherever they went to paint any tree limbs that were pruned (as per British Standard 3998:1966).
He was promoted to foreman, studied at Merrist Wood College in Surrey, and then worked in various arboriculture roles throughout Europe, including in Germany, Denmark and Belgium. He has some colourful stories to tell from his time in the UK and Europe, including setting off observation post alarms and being surrounded by police and guard dogs while pruning a tree near the Berlin Wall in 1978 and dropping tree paint in Lord Jonathan Guinness’ eye while pruning a tree on the Luggala Estate in Dublin.
A top-level flanker for Sussex, he even played an international match against Italy, winning 26-10. He also played for Rugby, where Webb Ellis picked up the ball and ran with it.
It was after all of this he decided to make the move to New Zealand to take on a new challenge, in 1979.
“I had kept in touch with a Kiwi called Ian Crossman and he convinced me to move to Auckland to ‘sort out’ the New Zealand arboriculture industry. He said he had started an arboriculture business with Alan Parker but when I arrived he was growing strawberries. They weren’t doing very well at all, so we started an arboriculture business called The Shady Tree Company.”
The business did well and they made regular appearances on the 1980’s TV series Dig This, where they provided helpful advice to New Zealanders about pruning, tree climbing, and tree care. They landed contracts in the Nelson area after a Parks and Recreation Conference in 1981 and went on to work in Tauranga and New Plymouth as their skill pruning trees using harnesses, rather than the older method of ladders, began to be noticed.
In 1988 he really left his mark on New Zealand arboriculture. He had just returned to New Zealand with his family after a stint in Canada when he was approached by Waikato Polytechnic senior tutor Ian Gear and asked if he would establish an arboriculture course. He had gained some teaching experience in Canada working for Camosun College in Victoria so he drew on this and his time in the industry to develop a curriculum with the help of Treescape founder Eddie Chignell and Doug Rowe from Hamilton City Council.
Martin says the curriculum was influenced by his time at Merrist Wood in the UK and the works of United States biologist and forester Dr Alex Shigo, who he calls “the real father of modern arboriculture”. However, it had to be adapted for the New Zealand environment, which has more diversity of trees than the UK.
“Getting equipment was hard in the early days because it all had to be brought in from overseas. We had no health and safety policy either, so we had to make our own safety standards from scratch.”
He continued tutoring at Waikato Polytechnic, which later became Wintec, for 22 years, before working for Treescape for six years. After that, it was back to tutoring with Primary ITO and Wintec, which he continues to this day teaching students at NZ Qualifications Framework levels 3-6 in Auckland, Hamilton, Northland and New Plymouth.
Martin says the New Zealand industry has undergone dramatic changes over the past few decades, including improvements in health and safety, the introduction of nationally recognised qualifications, and establishment of the New Zealand Arboriculture Association, of which he was one of the inaugural chairs.
He sees a bright future for the industry but acknowledges that it will need to continue to evolve.
“Global warming is now widely accepted, and arborists are playing a greater role in providing advice on how to maximise the amount of carbon dioxide trees convert.
“The changing climate is also leading to more plant diseases, such as myrtle rust and kauri dieback, and arborists are central to mitigating their damage and preventing their spread. Increasingly, arborists are being asked to advise on biosecurity issues, which speaks to a growing awareness of the value the profession provides.”
Other changes arborists will need to deal with in future include the growing use of helicopters and cranes in tree care and removal, and continued scientific and technological progress. While robotics may one day be used in the industry, Martin says it’s unlikely to be imminent because of the challenges of operating high off the ground in trees.
“It would take a lot of investment and right now I can’t see any robots being able to do what an arborist does. I think a more immediate change will be a move away from petrol chainsaws – there are more and more electric chainsaws offering good power to weight ratios and good battery life. They are environmentally friendly and have a switch instead of a starter cord, which makes them safer.”
The lack of skilled labour is another major challenge, both at entry level and also at management and consultancy level. Addressing that will take education and a will from those in the industry to play a leadership role, he says.
“Arboriculture has a good future if we continue to change, particularly in the sphere of consultancy. Working as a consultant means only about 30-40 per cent of the job is pure arboriculture – you now need good IT skills as well to understand GIS technology, council systems, statutory law and consent processes.”
These days, Martin’s tutoring is more part time, though he remains just as passionate about the industry. His home, nestled among the trees in Auckland’s Waitakere Ranges, is in a fitting location for a man dubbed “the father of New Zealand arboriculture” by many of his peers.
“I just can’t stop working”, he says. “If you can share what you know with others and it’s going to help their knowledge and their future it’s great. I get a real kick out of it.”
Find out more about studying Arboriculture at Wintec here.