Go back

Soft site specialists use tracked Gators

The boggier the ground and the more environmentally sensitive the site, the more call there is for Treeclear UK's light-footed specialist clearance machines – which now include two four-tracked John Deere Gator utility vehicles.


Anthony Lambert is on his way to inspect another patch of impenetrable rhododendron on a country estate in Scotland. It is one of the latest jobs to be taken on by the company, which has built its reputation and success by, as Anthony says: “Specialising in providing a cost-effective solution by mechanical means to manage woody vegetation in areas previously impossible to access and control.”

Currently, he explains, a large proportion of Treeclear UK's work is for Natural England, clearing dense rhododendron from lowland raised bog sites as part of various restoration projects. “We are fully accredited with ISO9001 management systems, ISO14001 environmental systems and OHSAS 18001 health and safety, which is extremely important,” he says.

To establish the company's beginnings it is necessary to wind the clock back nearly 50 years, to 1969 when Anthony's father Denis and his brother-in-law formed a business involved with fencing, planting and other forestry operations, which progressed into tree surgery. In 2003 Treeclear UK was formed, with the specific brief to specialise in site clearance and general tree surgery.

“Our philosophy is one of evolution – we always try to be innovative and like to stay ahead of the game,” says Anthony, who is responsible for site management and day-to-day operations. Denis is now semi-retired, but he still provides back-up support.

At the time the company was formed, they were involved in commercial tree surgery to keep power lines clear of vegetation for a number of the UK’s power companies. “We then saw a niche for specialist site clearance and the opportunity to exploit it,” says Anthony.

This decision meant the need to invest in dedicated equipment, the first being a 250hp Bandit 18in chipper that was modified to suit Treeclear's requirements (a Lambert trademark). “We fitted it with an integral feed grab and converted it to tracks. This meant we had a versatile machine that could handle and move large volumes of timber in a timely fashion, and safely.”

By mid-2000, the work had expanded more into site clearance for major house builders and road construction projects, including the A1, the M65 and Deeside by-pass; all, generally, solid ground operations. A high capacity mulcher and a 20-tonne excavator with a 20in capacity tree shear had been added to the machinery fleet, which also included smaller chippers, a Unimog with a Hiab crane and chip trailers so they could do the whole job. The chip was sold to power stations or for landscaping and, depending on the quality, the timber was sent to the sawmill or sold as firewood.

Then, in 2008, came the credit crunch. “There were fewer projects so we started to evolve again,” Anthony says. Since 2010 Treeclear UK has been involved with environmental work, which again meant the need for specialised machinery, and the Lambert's flair for adaptation. “The first challenge was with the National Grid to clear under power lines on a boggy site, which was overgrown as it was inaccessible and at the time there wasn't a machine that could do it, so we had to come up with a solution as to how to clear it.”

Their solution was to put together a low ground pressure excavator with a specialist mulching head: two Hitachi EX60 lightweight excavators on 1m wide steel tracks. Specially made to order and brought in from Italy, the tracks are fitted to Treeclear UK's current front line machines.

“The tracks exert a ground pressure just below 2psi, so the machines can travel on sensitive sites and soft and boggy ground with minimal impact,” Anthony explains. “We've developed the mulching heads over the past six years, specifically for clearing large volumes of rhododendron and to suit both the size of excavator they're on and the density of the material they’re working in.”

Other machinery in the company’s comprehensive equipment portfolio includes two high capacity mulchers at 400 and 500hp, three self-propelled whole tree chippers capable of chipping up to 18in diameter, 10 to 20 inch capacity tree shears and five low ground pressure excavators with a range of land clearing attachments.

The crews are serviced by two 2000-litre tracked bunded diesel bowsers, as they have to be self-contained due to the remoteness of the areas the company operates in. This can also pose problems getting the staff to and from their machines safely. “It can often be nearly three miles from vehicular access to the worksite across boggy terrain, so it is imperative that the personnel transporter is on tracks,” says Anthony.

This issue was resolved through the purchase in 2015 of two John Deere Gator four-wheel drive utility vehicles, an XUV 855D and an S4 (four-seater) version of the same model. Here, Treeclear UK was again ahead of the game: critically both vehicles could be fitted with Camso tracks, which are manufactured by the same Canadian company that supplies the track units for John Deere's 8R, 9R and 9RX four-track agricultural tractors.

Supplied by UK distributor Supatracks Ltd in Alva, Clackmannanshire, the tracks – which were introduced to the UK for John Deere Gators at the beginning of 2016 at the LAMMA Show – reduce ground pressure by up to 75 per cent to less than 1psi and take under two hours to install in place of the wheels, with no other modifications needed. Track widths are 318mm at the front and 356mm at the rear, and the tracks are steered so they minimise disruption of the soil surface when driving off-road.

Supatracks supplied the initial standard XUV 855D Gator complete with tracks and a demountable winch arrangement, which had previously been its tracked demonstration machine. The S4 Gator was purchased by Treeclear from its local John Deere dealer Tomlinson Groundcare of Stowmarket in Suffolk, and Supatracks supplied the track kit for this machine direct to Treeclear.

“John Deere has been in the industry for a long time and has an excellent reputation for reliability, and the Gator is a well known and respected machine,” Anthony Lambert says. “The XUV 855D is the size and has the power and carrying capacity we want, but the crucial point was that it could be put on tracks if need be; it was the ideal combination.”

The first contract the Gators were used on was the Humberhead Levels project on behalf of Natural England, where their role was to take the ground clearance crews across some pretty atrocious conditions to the specialised Treeclear machines on site (pictured).

“We would have struggled to get to and from site with a wheeled machine and the XUV 855D was delivered on tracks,” says Anthony. “Two weeks into the job we put the S4 on tracks as well. Both vehicles could travel on wet, tricky terrain other ATVs couldn't handle, but the Gators are not just personnel carriers. On-site back up is essential, and they are proper support vehicles carrying tools and spare parts, so everything required to service our machines in-situ is at hand to reduce downtime, which clients appreciate.

“It is important to have supplier back-up at the end of the 'phone, but we have our own fitters who can handle repairs up to a certain level and a full complement of specialist firms we can call on,” Anthony adds. All staff are fully trained with ATV certificates, and he confirms that the conversion to tracks is easy and quick and that they do not affect the machines' handling.

Viewed as an essential part of the machinery fleet and service that Treeclear UK offers its clients, the tracked Gators will be used on a regular basis on future contracts and also offer the potential to provide additional services, says Anthony. “We can utilise the base unit in the future by putting a small sprayer on the load bed, for example.

“It has been a natural progression built up over the years, but our willingness to invest in specialist equipment means that we can now boast that we are a leader in our niche sector, with a fleet of machines that not many can match,” says Anthony. “There is also our flexibility – if the future brings a need to evolve, evolve we will.”

Source: John Deere GmbH & Co. KG; ASM Public Relations Ltd