The tradition may have endured since Victorian times but the types of tree that adorn our homes and techniques for producing them are decidely modern, says Graham Downing
The tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas goes back to the Victorian times. But the techniques behind Christmas tree farming are decidely modern, discovers Graham Downing.
There is no better place than the British countryside at Christmas. From the Boxing Day meet to the family shoot, festive food, drink and country life, The Field advises on a proper, country Christmas.
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CHRISTMAS TREE FARMING
It was an engraving on the cover of a Christmas supplement to the Illustrated London News that launched the Christmas tree onto an unsuspecting British public. Introduced from Germany to the Court of George III, the tree had become central to the Christmas festivities of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in the 1840s, and when an endearing picture of the Royal couple and their young family beside a candle-lit tree adorned with gifts and baubles was published in 1848, the convention of bringing a decorated fir tree into the home was eagerly imitated by Britain’s wealthier families.
The idea of illuminating a Christmas tree with burning candles seems remarkably risky to our sensibilities, and in the larger houses a servant would be appointed to guard the lighted tree. At Sherborne Castle, a footman patrolled with a long pole with a wet sponge on top that could be used to douse the candles before they burned dangerously low. Even so, by the 1890s – by which time electric ‘fairy’ lights were already replacing candles, at least in the capital – there was a thriving trade in Christmas trees. In 1895, one Covent Garden market trader offered trees from 18in up to 40ft in height, mostly obtained as thinnings from gentlemen’s game coverts. He sold 30,000 a year at prices ranging from £6 for a 40-footer down to 4d for the smallest tree.
The Christmas tree phenomenon remained largely confined to more comfortably off households until well into the 20th century and it is likely that many working-class Britons got their first glimpse of a Christmas tree whilst in service. By contrast, in Germany the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was much more widely established across the social spectrum and in 1914 the German army even went so far as to issue small, dugout-sized Christmas trees to soldiers at the Front. It would have been rare to find a Christmas tree in the average British working-class home at this time, and it was only during the 1950s that, with growing affluence, Christmas trees became readily affordable. Even then, some families preferred to buy artificial trees, many of which, it is said, were produced by Izal, the toilet equipment manufacturers. Not surprisingly, a lot of these products looked more like toilet brushes than natural trees.
Today, some 7.5 million trees are sold in Britain each Christmas, at an average price of £40 a tree. “The industry has grown enormously,” says Oliver Combe, a grower from Yorkshire and chairman of the British Christmas Tree Growers’ Association. “We think that UK producers currently grow about 4.5 million trees, with the balance being imported, principally from Denmark, Ireland and Belgium.”
Christmas tree production in Britain started life very much as a supplementary branch of conventional forestry. When the forestry industry was in its heyday during the 1970s and ’80s, a forester would cut the thinnings out of his crop of lodgepole pine or Norway spruce, and as he went through the wood he would earmark trees that looked suitable for the Christmas tree market. These trees would be cut during the week and then hauled to the roadside where a truck would collect them at the weekend.
CHRISTMAS TREE PIONEERS
“It was around this time that a few pioneers started looking at the idea of growing Christmas trees as a crop on farmland,” says Combe. “In Europe, the Danes were instrumental in developing the industry and we realised there was an opportunity to take forward commercial Christmas tree growing in the UK. There has now emerged a highly specialised support industry, with contractors who can offer spraying, fertilising, pruning, marking, measuring and harvesting.”
A crop of Christmas trees will typically take seven to eight years to grow to marketable size. After the ground has been prepared and fenced against rabbits and perhaps deer, seedlings are planted out at three years old, either by hand or, increasingly, by machine. Regular fertilising is required as well as spraying to control weeds and pests, but especially crucial as the trees gain height is careful pruning to remove the basal branches, to manage the leader growth and to maintain correct shape. Some 80% of the market is for trees of 6ft to 7ft or 7ft to 8ft, and most trees will be harvested, netted and palletised when they reach these size classes.
The once-traditional Norway spruce has long been eclipsed by other species, in particular the Nordman fir, a continental species originating in the Caucasus that has dark-green, glossy needles, an attractive shape and much greater needle fastness. Nordman fir now has an 85% share of the marketplace but there is still demand for Norway spruce, while there is also a local preference in the north-west of England for lodgepole pine, a legacy of its popularity at the time when it was planted in Lancashire as a timber tree. Other species are particularly suited to the wetter climates of the west, such as the noble fir, concolor fir and Korean fir. In Dumfriesshire, Rory Young grows around half-a-million trees on his 220 acres, half of which are Nordman fir and the other half Fraser fir from North Carolina.
“We started growing in 1999 when Nordman fir was the most popular tree. I then went on a study tour to the United States, where Fraser fir is number one,” says Young. “It’s got some really interesting traits – it has a pleasant, citrusy smell, a blue tinge and a finer needle. It’s naturally a slimmer tree and a bit narrower than the Nordman, so it suits a lot of people with smaller houses.”
Young has followed the US production model. “I learned a lot in the States. The Americans are good at getting an industry growing and as we are not able to export to them and they cannot export to us because of phytosanitary regulations there is no competition, so they are very helpful.”
He has gone as far down the route of mechanisation as possible. He plants by tractor with a GPS guidance system to ensure accurate placement of seedlings, he sprays and fertilises mechanically, harvests with a hydraulic cutting machine and nets his trees in the field. “If you can mechanise it, we have done so,” says Young. “The equipment is bespoke and expensive, mostly from Denmark and Holland, so it’s a big financial commitment. Even with our level of mechanisation, it’s labour intensive when compared to conventional forestry, but at our scale it’s difficult to find the number of staff who want to get down on their hands and knees, no matter how much you are prepared to pay, so we do the donkey work mechanically and then we employ a small group of highly skilled workers. The only thing that you cannot do mechanically is shaping the tree, so we have five full-time staff who will look at each tree individually and decide how to prune it.”
A FAMILY MATTER
As Christmas approaches, however, most growers will require extra labour and on Reg Hendy’s 40-acre farm near Wellington in Somerset that invariably means family labour. “We are very much a family business and on a busy weekend in the run-up to Christmas there will be up to 25 of us working on the farm, the nucleus of which will include my two sons and daughters-in-law plus our four grandchildren,” says Hendy.
“In the early days we sold to garden centres but when I took a look around the garden centres and markets myself, I saw that they were making more money out of our trees in seven or eight days than we were doing in the seven or eight years that the trees were in the ground. Now we do our own marketing. We have a big farm shop and do online sales across Devon and Somerset, delivering out to about 50 miles from the farm. I think people want to support their local grower. They want to see freshness, with trees coming in from the fields into the farm shop.”
As is the case with other Christmas tree growers, Hendy’s farm shop also sells tree stands, Christmas wreaths and a wide variety of Christmas decorations.
Encouraged by his Danish seedling suppliers, Hendy has switched to autumn planting. Winter planting into a cold wet soil proved to be unsuccessful, and spring planting risks catastrophe in a dry spring. Those who planted in spring 2018 experienced losses of from 10% to 15%, while continental growers suffered much worse than this, with up to 70% losses reported in Denmark and even more in south Germany and Poland. Of course, these losses are amongst newly planted trees: established trees with their roots into the ground fared reasonably well in last summer’s drought and despite the scare stories there is not expected to be any shortage of harvestable trees this Christmas, though there may perhaps be a visible impact on the market in six years’ time.
Increasingly, customers want to see sustainability and growers have responded by producing container-grown trees that, though more expensive to produce, have a shorter rotation and can be brought indoors and decorated year after year, or planted out in the garden after Christmas.
The market for cut trees flourishes, however, and despite concerns over the perception that cutting down trees may be environmentally damaging, the industry points out that it plants between 10% and 20% more trees than it harvests every year, besides which every hectare of Christmas trees it grows absorbs six tonnes of carbon dioxide and provides enough oxygen for 43 people. At the end of their lives, most Christmas trees will be chipped, mulched and returned to the soil. That’s got to be more sustainable than the artificial tree that is manufactured from plastic and wire, shipped over from the far east and looks like a glorified loo brush into the bargain.
The British Christmas Tree Growers Association website has information on types of Christmas tree, suppliers and caring for trees. Go to: www.bctga.co.uk