Tough Christmas tree growing season may offer Brits longer term dividend

Oliver Combe, chairman of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. Picture by Scott Merrylees.
Oliver Combe, chairman of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. Picture by Scott Merrylees.
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British Christmas tree growers could be primed to reap long-term benefits from the severe drought conditions that hit production on the continent in the summer.

Domestic growers did not escape the prolonged dry spell unscathed but many of their European counterparts suffered far worse, with estimated tree losses in Belgium, for example, totalling up to 400,000 - nearly a seventh of its annual production.

It takes around eight years for a Christmas tree to reach the optimum height of 6ft and the knock-on effect of the loss of young trees could be a factor for European growers in the years to come.

“There could be a real shortage of trees from the continent in seven or eight years’ time and that could present opportunities for British growers,” said Oliver Combe, chairman of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association.

“That is provided they can get hold of plants, because they are grown in European nurseries and British growers tend to have a forward contract for these nurseries. When they come to us they are three-years-old.”

Around seven million trees hit the British market each year. Some two million of those trees are imported from Europe and are mainly being sold in supermarkets.

As tree producers prepare for the start of the seasonal rush over the coming weeks, Mr Combe, assured customers that the quality of trees available from British growers this year remains high.

“British growers are doing a great job and the quality of trees available this year is going to be very good. Buying British will ensure you receive a quality home grown tree.

“It has been a different story in Europe where the hot weather did have a substantial impact. In countries like Denmark and Germany along with Central and Eastern Europe, hundreds of thousands of young trees were affected. The problems encountered by some British growers were due to the fact we didn’t receive a regular amount of rain for three months.”

A lucrative business, the British Christmas Tree Growers Association represents 320 growers across a market worth around £300m to the UK economy and extreme weather conditions can have a big impact on livelihoods.

“This is a specialist business and extremes of climate will always cause significant problems for growers,” Mr Combe said.

“We’ve had problems with spider mites, they’ve been a big issue this year,” he said.

“We also had to adjust when we sprayed fertilisers for long periods because it was too hot during the day. A lot of this was done during the night.

“Growth has been quite erratic and there have been losses of trees that are two or three-years-old where they have been growing in heavy soil.

“However, in York, we did fare better than other areas of the country and our young trees have established well, while the larger ones for this Christmas survived strongly.”

DIVERSIFICATION

Christmas tree sales are seen by some farmers and landowners as potentially lucrative sidelines, but Mr Combe urged caution before leaping into the market.

“It is seen as an opportunity. A lot of people try it but it is becoming more and more demanding. It is specialist horticulture with very technical requirements.

READ MORE: Fifth of farmers plan to diversify to protect themselves from Brexit

“People are trying to do it well, putting a lot of investment in, and there are others who are thinking let’s have a go at this. There will be some who succeed and some who fail.

“You have got to want to do it and be really involved in it because it’s a long-term project.

“Like any business, public expectations go up every year and to do this as a hobby is very difficult. There are more and more requirements for Nordman firs, people like the quality, and they want higher service levels and fresher trees.”