The double whammy of coronavirus and Brexit have delivered an unexpected boost to a niche but expanding British business sector: the real Christmas tree.
A traumatic mink cull in Denmark that affected supply chains and deterred wholesale buyers, disruption at ports ahead of the end the Brexit transition and a campaign to buy local have seen sales of British trees jump about 15 per cent, according to Heather Parry, managing agent of the 320-member British Christmas Tree Growers Association.
“It’s been a great year; very positive,” she said, adding that a big driver was a sharp rise in first-time real tree buyers. “They want an authentic Christmas and a more sustainable Christmas; those are the words we hear.”
Forestry England, the government-funded forest management body which sells British Christmas trees from eight forests, has similarly noted an upsurge in first-time buyers.
About 8m Christmas trees have been sold in the UK each year recently. This year, based on sales so far, the association said the figure should exceed 9m, with much of the increase being sourced domestically.
Precise figures are not yet available because sales continue until Christmas Eve.
In recent decades, UK farmers needing to diversify their incomes and businesspeople with available land have taken a risk on the sector. One-foot-high transplants, bought from specialist nurseries, take about eight years to reach 6ft to 7ft.
Danish trees were once the most sought-after but the quality of British trees has risen as more people take a more professional approach to production, the growers association said. The increasing popularity of Nordmann firs has helped overcome needle shedding, a problem when Norway spruce succumbs to central heating.
Third-generation farmer Andrew Stenton, of New Hall Farm, near Barnsley, Yorkshire, became one of the new wave of professional British Christmas tree growers after the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001 devastated his pedigree bull business.
Like other growers, he feared Covid-19 restrictions might hamper tree sales but the government’s late autumn go-ahead transformed prospects. “It’s been the biggest sales year for retail since we founded the company about 20 years ago,” he said.
Producing profitable trees requires high-quality soil, year-round management and knowledge. Above all, agricultural forestry requires time. “It’s the same as any investment form,” said Mr Stenton. “It’s investing for the long term.”
Some purchasers favour potted trees with roots but their height is limited. Growers argue that their trees, colonised by birds and wildlife, woodchipped at end of life and replaced after felling by new planting, are environmentally friendly.
At his base near Muir of Ord in the Scottish Highlands, Justin Scobie has spent £100,000 over the past decade developing and nurturing his Tarradale Christmas Tree plantation. He had expected 30 per cent growth in this, his third year of selling, but sales have in fact doubled.
A key reason, he said, was that his invitation to the public to walk through his plantation to choose their tree chimed with growing awareness of sustainability and the importance of buying local.
“People have had a bit more time this year to think about the environment and give these things a bit more thought,” he said.