Danger of Tree Climbing to Collect Fruit: A Case Study

Recent stories in the news of a girl who died falling from a tree have highlighted the dangers involved in the traditional children’s pastime of climbing trees. Without wanting to wrap children in cotton wool it does make sense to assess the dangers as serious injuries can be sustained by falling out of a tree.

We spoke to Dan McIlroy* who experienced injury when falling from a tree at first hand at the ripe old age of forty, and felt he had learned a lesson.

Fruit Harvesting

“There was a single apple tree in the front garden at the house we were renting a few years ago and I couldn’t bear to see the fruit going to waste,” he said. “My daughter, who at the time was ten, was keen to get up into the tree and of course, I said I’d help.”

The tree was quite tall and old, having three main branches, one of which was already completely dead but still quite strong enough to be used as a foothold to get up into the main crop area. “The first problem was that there were few limbs lower down to provide a launchpad for an assault on the summit,” Dan explained.

Strong Beginnings

“I pushed my daughter up into the upper branches and she was able to get a foot on the first main branch. From then on it was plain sailing,” he said. “She was happy enough throwing the fruit down to me to put in the basket I was holding. Once we’d harvested the fruit that she could reach easily, it was time to get down, and that’s when the real trouble started.”

As is quite often the case with children, getting up is one thing and getting down quite another. “She wouldn’t let her foot down enough to reach my hand or the only decent foothold in the trunk,” said Dan. “I could see that she was only an inch or two away but she was still reluctant to drop that extra distance. In the end I knew I would have to go up there and lower her down.”

Dad Gets Involved

Dan is over six feet tall so he was able to get up reasonably easily. Going past his daughter he then lowered her down by her hands until she had her foot on the stump halfway down the trunk. Once that was done she was able to move her handhold and was soon safe on the ground. Then it happened.

“I turned round to start coming down to the lower branches,” he said. “As I put my weight on the dead branch, well, you can guess, it snapped with an almighty crack. I was able to grab a lower branch with my right hand as my feet gave way and that meant I could get myself upright on the way down.”

That wasn’t enough though. Not being able to work out when he was going to hit the ground Dan wasn’t able to bend his legs at the right time to absorb the impact and his left leg broke in three places. But just before that his right shoulder dislocated as all his weight was taken by that arm.

Full Recovery

“I was a right mess,” he laughed, now fully recovered, “but fortunately my wife was in the house so she could call the ambulance.”

Does he have any safety advice for children who climb trees? “I would use a ladder, he said, “at least for the lower branches, and make sure an adult is present. But more importantly, never put both your feet on the same branch and make sure you only move one hand or foot at the same time. If I’d done that the branch probably wouldn’t have given way, and even if it had, I would have had a better chance of staying in the tree.”

Learning From Mistakes

Would he prevent children from climbing trees to avoid injury and encourage them to find other ways of playing in safety?

“No,” he replied, “I still think it’s important for children to play in a natural environment and you can worry too much about safety. I think it’s more the adults you need to keep out of the trees!”

* names have been changed