With spending tight in the public and private sectors, relocating a tree is for many a more viable option than buying and planting a whole new specimen. And while it is possible to lift trees at any time, most contractors recommend doing so during the dormant period, between October and March.
Ruskins is a specialist tree care firm with a wide range of tree moving equipment. According to operations director Robert Wilkins: "Tree moving offers large cost savings, which is particularly welcome right now for those whose budgets are under pressure.
"It's not down-trading, just the most cost-effective way of using what you already have. If there's a short distance between the donor and target site, the savings can be as high as 90 per cent."
The company will even talk clients out of buying new trees where existing ones can be repositioned, he says. "Fortunately, it's being done more regularly. For example, on road widening projects, trees are being moved to the new road boundary rather than being taken out."
The process boasts a high success rate, he adds. "It varies depending on the species and soil type. But providing you are within the capacity of the spade, and you look after it when it's planted, the survival rate is above 95 per cent. We have been moving trees on one golf course for 15 years and in that time have only lost one."
However, he stresses the importance of watering while replanted trees establish. "If you don't compensate for that, they will bite you back - and while you can move trees in leaf, you have to upgrade the watering. Around now is the best time, when the ground is still firm. You don't want 23 tonnes of tree and truck on sodden ground."
Not that the technique is without its critics in the arb world. "There is always a range of opinions and some will say that tree transplanting doesn't work," Wilkins concedes. "But we have a 70 per cent rate of repeat custom."
The company's biggest recent challenge was to move a pine tree with a 64-tonne rootball in Essex. "There was a lot of interest from local authority tree officers. But it will take seven to 10 years to establish in its new site," he adds.
While such services have attracted some new firms in recent years, he says: "The barriers to entry are not only the cost of the machine but also the accumulated knowledge of what works and where there are shades of grey. That's part of what we've offered since 1986."
Practicality Brown also reports a positive climate for its Buckinghamshire-based business. "We have been very lucky over the past year and made a bit of money, though not as much as in recent years," says operations manager Alan Jones.
"We are looking forward to starting work this season when the trees become dormant. There has been an increase in work, especially on golf courses. They're finding people are still playing, which means there's still a budget to improve the courses.
"While large courses such as the Belfry will have their own tree-lifting machines, they have asked us back this season to advise on some lifting. There's always a lot that can be done on the courses and the smaller ones say they'd like to have us in every year, but budgets don't stretch that far."
Part of what drives the golf course market is the constant need to compensate for improvements in players' clubs and balls, which extend the length of the typical drive, he says. But he adds: "One course recently asked us to move trees that had grown too big because they wanted to make it easier for the average golfer."
On the construction side, Jones says: "We get a lot of enquiries, but in most situations the trees are too big to move without a frame and crane." Here, a frame is fitted around the tree to support it while a trench is dug around the rootball. The tree is then lifted by crane onto a lorry, transported, then again lifted by crane into position. As well as the obvious access difficulties, Jones says, this is also "extremely expensive".
The company will also make use of super-size tree spades from Germany for large-scale specialist work, he adds. "But for most construction sites, golf courses and private homes, you need something that will fit on a JCB or a 360, which restricts the size of the tree that you can move down to about 30-40cm girth."
Instead, he says, developers are more likely to simply fell trees that are in the way and replant with new specimens. "Annoyingly, they often get away with putting in trees as little as 20-30cm girth. That or they simply say 'oops' and take the consequences," he reveals.
The technology involved is well-established and durable, he adds. "Even the very new ones have only minor improvements and because they're only used in a certain period of the year, they will last for many years. We have one machine that's 23 years old that we still expect to get a few more years' service out of."
The do-it-yourself option
Mechanically lifting mature trees might sound like a very daunting task, but according to Ben Burgess representative Jason Bond, there is no reason why operators of regular telehandlers should not hire a tree spade and take on the work themselves.
"The machine is so simple to use - it's basically just a series of switches," he explains. "Once you've done one or two trees, you get into the swing of it." And the do-it-yourself option is already proving popular. "From October to March it is usually booked solid, mainly from golf courses but also deer parks and stately homes. The majority of our hires are self-drive," he says.
The Norfolk-based firm offers the Optimal 1100 tree spade, which is capable of moving trees up to 12cm girth. "That will give you a rootball of about one cubic metre, weighing about a tonne, which is ideal," says Bond. "You can move bigger than that but the chances of survival will be lower. Even with a two-tonne dead weight, you have to worry about soil compaction from the tyres."
The tree spade fits onto a JCB or Manitou telehandler, which the company can also provide. It can even be packed on a modified palette and shipped overnight, together with the instruction manual. "That cuts down the transport costs considerably," says Bond.
One tip he offers is to plan the sequence of work first to minimize handling and ground wear. So, for example, dig the first hole and keep the spoil to one side, move the first tree into that hole, fill the hole left behind by that tree with the spoil from the second new hole and so on, before finally filling the hole left by the last tree with the spoil from the first hole. "One guy who hired it found he could move 50 trees in a day. He called up to say how impressed he was," Bond recalls.
Perthshire-based Bellwood Trees has also diversified into offering a tree spade hire service, but manager Craig Wemyss does not recommend the DIY option. "You need the experience behind you, so we provide a trained nursery technician," he says.
"We do site visits prior to any form of lifting to advise the client whether what they have in mind is achievable. When it isn't, that's largely down to size. Though we moved trees up to 30m in height, weighing 30 tonnes."
The company's Morooka, with a 1.8m spade, is also well suited to the Scottish climate. "Its flotation rubber tracks let you cross a golf fairway without leaving ruts behind," he adds.