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Mildenhall tree surgeon Ronald “Moe” Murkin stands next to a healthy patient at RAF Mildenhall.
Mildenhall tree surgeon Ronald “Moe” Murkin stands next to a healthy patient at RAF Mildenhall. (Ben Murray / S&S)

It may sound a little unsettling to hear that when this Mildenhall surgeon performs an operation, his preferred instrument is a chain saw.

But lifetime local Ronald “Moe” Murkin’s line of work isn’t all that gory: At worst, when he’s done with a procedure he’s covered in sawdust and sap. The 58-year-old, who said his hobbies include charity work, sports and beer, is a tree surgeon, contracted by RAF Mildenhall to keep trees on the base healthy and shapely.

As a tree surgeon, what’s the first thing you do to assess a patient?

Well, basically you have a look at the size, shape and condition, such as bark and leaves.

What are you looking for?

Healthy, supple bark, normal growth. We like to keep the lowest branch to about 5-foot-6 to 6-foot, so when officers cut across the grass they don’t knock their hats off. At the base of the trees we like to keep what are known as “wild suckers,” keep them trimmed back. At the base of the tree, we like to have a foot[wide] border all the way around with loose soil to absorb moisture, and also if anyone has climbed the tree you know they’ve got mud on their boots so you know who done it.

Now, the job, I assume, must include a lot of amputations.

Yup. We call that pollard. On various trees we try not to let them get too high, so we chop ’em so when the birds are young and learning to fly they haven’t got far to fall.

So, it sounds like you either cut their limbs or their heads off.

Yeah, that’s it.

Is it a lot of, like, “Sponge. Scalpel. Chain saw …”

It’s normally what we call loppers and chain saw work.

What’s one of the most delicate operations you’ve performed?

Obviously when you’re what we call climbing, when you pollard odd branches out, health and safety is paramount for the surgeon. One slip and you’re ‘pollarded.’

Anything where you had to work with some power lines or something?

Well that all comes into it. We work in what we call health and safety. You know, you spend half an hour estimating what’s to be done, an hour [on] how to do it, and 10 minutes doing it. You get more money that way. (Laughs)

Do you ever have to just kill a patient outright? Is that ever called for?

If you’ve got a tree dead, dying or [that has] outgrown its natural life, you obviously have to assess the area — transport, overhead cables, pedestrians, your own safety — then you either fell it from the top, depending on the height, or you fell it from about a meter high.

What kind of training or diploma do you need?

There’s a three-day training course, and then you’re assessed three months later, when you’re working.

Do you have to work up from, tree nurse, tree doctor, tree surgeon?

Well, depending what course you go on. If you go full hog, make a pig of yourself and do the whole lot in one, you’ve got a hell of a lot … to digest and remember, but otherwise it can be a 12-month period going through the [cutting] styles.

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