Arborists: Specialists Out on a Limb

Adelaide streetscapes are renowned for their native trees.

Trees are the backbone of our major civic and private landscapes, but they are often ignored until they clash with our infrastructure. JOHN POWER talks to professional arborist Mark Elliott about his daily work and the need to refine our tree management practices. 

OPERATOR: Adelaide Tree Surgery
REPRESENTATIVE: Mark Elliott, business owner
LOCATION: Adelaide, South Australia

Prune or remove? It’s a question that all professionally trained arborists face every day, but one that the average landowner or property manager is unlikely to judge correctly.

Arboriculture is unregulated in Australia, though Arboriculture Australia operates a voluntary licensing scheme. In the absence of mandatory regulations, networks of professional arborists must compete with untrained practitioners in settings where the fates of trees are often defined more by political bylaws and convenience than skilled assessments of tree health.

Employing professional arborists, in other words, has never been more important as a means of preserving trees and maximizing their longevity and safety.

Working at heights of 25-30m is no problem for a skilled arborist.

Mark Elliott, owner of Adelaide Tree Surgery in South Australia, took over the previously established business 19 years ago. Since then he has observed significant changes to civic attitudes regarding the care and management of trees, as reflected in pruning and removal ratios.

“When I first started we were probably 70% prune: 30% removal, and that’s how I set up the business, but changes in our legislation over the past 10 or so years have probably made it closer to 55% prune: 45% removal, so we definitely do more removals now than we used to do,” Mark explains. “Our government over here [South Australia] has made it easier to remove certain species of trees, but we still do a fair portion of pruning and maintenance.”

Decisions regarding the most appropriate actions affecting trees are complex, involving both skilled appraisals of a tree’s health as well as its immediate surroundings.

“The problematic trees are the ones that ‘become’ a problem because of development, urban infill or drought, which is a big issue here in South Australia,” he says.

“Urban infill has had a big impact – you might have an instance where there is a tree on a block of land that gets subdivided into two or three [holdings], and suddenly that tree might be overhanging the roof of a new dwelling. A lot of issues are caused by development.”


Of course, there are plenty of other circumstances in which a tree might need attention simply due to poor condition, age, rubbing branches, overweight lateral limbs, deadwood, disease, overly dense crowns, or other physical features.

Treatments undertaken by Adelaide Tree Surgery and its 10 staff (seven full-time, three part-time) invariably involve specially selected outdoor power equipment.

A standard equipment inventory might include:
• truck and chipper
• small truck or ute as support vehicle
• stump machine

as well as ranges of:
• chainsaws
• pole saws
• pruning saws
• edgers
• assorted climbing gear.

All mechanical handheld equipment used by the company is STIHL-branded gear. 

In addition to the above items, Mark says he has been keen to experiment with various STIHL battery-powered devices, not only to accommodate noise-sensitive environments, but also to take advantage of lower equipment weight.

“Battery-powered equipment has a place in our workplace for specific jobs,” he says. “From a noise point of view it’s great, especially the battery-operated chainsaws. They can feel like a toy, but if used incorrectly they can cause a serious injury. That’s the main thing I stress [to staff] when they are using that equipment: don’t become complacent – respect the equipment even if it is a battery-operated machine.”

Maintenance is conducted on-site in the business’ own depot, which limits downtime. Local dealership technicians perform more specialised scheduled maintenance tasks and repairs.

These maintenance routines enhance equipment longevity and ensure optimal performance year-round. 

“We’ve got chainsaws in the fleet that are a couple of years old,” Mark says.“If they are well maintained and looked after, you can get that kind of lifespan out of them for sure.”

Lateral limb pruning is a common task.

According to Mark, arborists’ work is not seasonal – there are no particular months or seasons when jobs cannot proceed. Nevertheless, seasonality can have a small impact on the styles of jobs that require attention, or on crews’ capacities to complete tasks. For example, “one issue that has come about recently is sudden limb failure, which we tend to get in the hot dry weather,” he explains.” When I started 19 years ago we used to have more issues with trees with limb failure in the winter months, but it’s more the summer months these days.”

Sudden limb failure occurs when a branch sheds a limb unexpectedly.

Are some tree species more problematic than others?

“Not really,” Mark says, adding that both native and exotic trees are equally well suited to the wider Adelaide area providing they are properly maintained.


Tree maintenance, particularly pruning, is a highly specialised skill that is often misunderstood by landowners. Once an assessment is made that pruning is the right course of action, either to improve tree health or to reduce its negative impacts in a built-up location, there are numerous variables to consider.

As a rule, Mark notes, older trees should be subjected to less severe pruning than younger trees. “My philosophy is: the more mature a tree is, the less foliage you ought to take off. So if you want to remove a large limb you might do that in stages over a period of time rather than in one hit.”

Staggered pruning is designed to relieve the stresses placed on a tree, and can include multi-year pruning programs for very large specimens. Australian Standards exist to help professionals refine complex programs.

“And that’s why people who are untrained can do a lot of damage,” Mark says.


There are many reasons for tree pruning, including the removal of limbs near power lines.

Training and experience are not only vital for diagnosing tree maintenance requirements, but they are also fundamental to staff safety. It is worth noting that of the 10 staff employed by the company, three have Cert. III Arboriculture qualifications, another three are studying for their Cert. III credentials, while Mark has a Diploma of Arboriculture. Up-to-date safety protocols, therefore, are well entrenched among all members.

An important safety tip: as a ‘climbing’ arboriculture business, Adelaide Tree Surgery uses practically no ladders on a typical job. Instead, crews carrying lightweight power equipment climb trees to tackle tasks in a sequential fashion. Personal protective equipment includes:
• rope
• harnesses
• helmets
• chainsaw pants
• gloves
• safety glasses
• safety boots
• ear protection

The only ladders used by the business are designed to hold horizontal platforms for hedge trimming works.


According to Mark, local regulations could be improved to help limit unnecessary tree removal, and safeguard tree resources in urban environments
like Adelaide.

“I understand peoples’ concerns from a safety perspective – and there are trees that need to be removed for that reason, and others that need to be removed because they are growing in an urban location like over a property – but trees also need to be managed correctly too. If we were a regulated industry and had all professionals out there doing their trees to a reasonable standard, I think that would put trees in a much stronger position. Don’t forget: incorrect work in the first place causes many of the safety issues we come across.”