The Elveden Estate in Norfolk has a long history of growing Christmas trees. Clemmie Gleeson speaks to forestry foreman Tim Handford about customers changing preferences when it comes to Christmas tree size, scale and variety.
Pursuit of the perfect Christmas tree is a year-round occupation for Tim Handford, forestry foreman at Elveden Estate.
The Norfolk estate’s plantations of Nordmann fir and Norway spruce trees require maintenance and a watchful eye every month of the year in order to produce premium quality trees for retail and wholesale markets.
The estate has grown Christmas trees for more than 40 years, says Tim, who joined the team straight after leaving school about 30 years ago.
The market for Christmas trees has changed in that time, with the ratio of trees heading for wholesale or retail markets fluctuating.
Tim has also adapted to changing demand for type and size of tree, honed production methods of the smaller trees grown on the estate, while also developing the market for large display trees for town and city centres which are sourced elsewhere.
Elveden is a 9,105-hectare (22,499-acre) estate near Thetford on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. It includes more than 4,000ha (9,884 acres) of farmland producing arable and vegetable crops, 1,456ha of Site of Special Scientific Interest heathland and 1,600ha (3,954 acres) of woodland.
As well as an extensive property portfolio, the estate also boasts two pub restaurants and The Courtyard, which is home to several retail outlets including a farm shop and butchery and another restaurant.
The forestry side of the business employs 10 full-time workers, including Tim.
It operates separately to the farm, other than when the team is needed to deal with overgrown trees or storm damage on the farm, explains Tim.
As well as managing Christmas tree production, the team also produces ‘instant hedges’, a variety of hedge planted as whips into peat-filled troughs with a permeable membrane.
They are grown to 1.2-1.8 metres in height, which takes four to seven years.
The Christmas trees are grown in several plantations on the estate.
About 20 years ago the forestry team started using drip irrigation for the trees’ first five years, which has helped ensure a more uniform crop.
“The first challenge is getting them established,” says Tim.
“Drip irrigation is a big investment per tree, but it gets them going. We would struggle without it with our sandy soil and end up with a lot of losses due to drought.”
“The market for Christmas trees is constantly changing. When I first joined Elveden, we had contracts for about 10,000 trees going out with milkmen”
The crops are walked weekly during the growing season to keep an eye on pests.
“Aphids and spider mites can be a problem,” he says.
“If they are left unchecked, aphids can defoliate the tree and they end up going brown.
“They can recover, but it takes a whole growing season, so it is better to be proactive and spray when necessary.”
Other potential problems include frost.
“A late frost can mean that any new growth will die and go brown,” Tim says.
“It means they are spoiled for that year, but will come back the following year.”
Fertiliser is applied during the growing season and pruning is necessary to ensure a good shape to each tree.
Specialist contractors are brought in for the process which requires special pliers to trim each tree’s ‘leader’, the uppermost branch which grows vertically.
Leaving the leader too long will result in large gaps between branches.
“It is quite intensive process to produce a good quality tree,” says Tim.
“Customers are quite demanding, but everybody has a different idea on what the perfect tree
“Some like bushy trees, while others want more space. It is in the eye of the purchaser.”
The Nordmann fir is a relative newcomer to the estate, having been introduced about 15 years ago.
Prior to that they grew Scots pine, which was particularly popular with the local American population at the airbase at Mildenhall, just a few miles away.
Around the same time, the team decided to develop their market for supplying larger Christmas trees for use in town and city centres, which led Tim to look beyond the estate to source trees more than 6m high.
For those he has to travel further afield – to Kielder Forest in Northumberland and a private estate in Scotland.
Tim makes the journey north several times a year to identify the trees he wants to harvest and then keep an eye on their progress.
This involves tagging them and use of a handheld GPS unit to save their exact location.
Trees over three metres high also require a plant passport to be moved.
When it is time to harvest the trees, he takes a harvesting team and equipment up with him for the task, with haulage then arranged to deliver the trees.
This year’s sales have included 15m trees in Stockton, alongside 12m trees in Ipswich, Slough, Leicester, Glasgow and Northamptonshire.
‘Trees over three metres high require a plant passport to be moved’
Elveden also offers an installation service for some of the largest trees and stands for all sizes of tree, but the best option for the tall town centre trees is a pit, says Tim.
“It is basically a concrete sleeve in the ground which the tree can be winched into,” he says.
“We can provide a team to deliver and install the tree in the middle of the night.”
The tallest trees are Sitka spruce, prized for being fast-growing and ideal for town centre locations as they are prickly and discourage any merry revellers from interfering with them or, worse still, trying to climb them, says Tim.
Other areas of business growth include sale of potted trees.
“From the public’s point of view, a potted tree is more sustainable, so we buy in some pot production trees,” Tim says.
“Customers like to plant them in their garden or move them into a bigger pot once Christmas is over.
“Growing potted trees is much more labour intensive than a cut tree and the price to the customer reflects that.
“They are about 10 per cent higher in price for a smaller tree.
“At one time we would dig up the trees with the roots on, but now they are grown by specialists in a fibre pot which can be lifted.
“Digging was frighteningly expensive and often the tree would not continue to grow afterwards, so a pot grown tree is much better.”
The estate also buys in a small number of Fraser fir trees to offer something different.
“They are even harder to grow so we buy those from a specialist too,” Tim says.
“The market for Christmas trees is constantly changing. When I first joined Elveden, we had contracts for about 10,000 trees going out with milkmen.”
When this market began to dwindle, the team instead marketed trees via a wholesaler in the south west of England, selling 15,000 trees this way at its peak.
“The trees would go loose on to a lorry. It was very intensive,” Tim says.
“But the market changed again and customers wanted trees to be palletised.
“Instead of doing that, we developed our own retail business alongside deciding to focus more on bigger display trees in town squares.”
The wholesale market still exists for domestic trees, but it fluctuates each year.
Meanwhile, the retail business, which sees around 5,000 to 6,000 trees sold from outside the Courtyard shops, has become more challenging too.
“Last year we noted a slight decline in sales,” Tim says.
“There are more shops popping up selling trees. If you go into town there are now lots of places selling them at very low cost.”
However, an additional selling point for Elveden has been the team of Newfoundland dogs from a local club, which offer to cart a customer’s tree to their car, in return for a donation to the East Anglian Air Ambulance.
The initiative raises more than £5,000 for the charity each year.
“It is very popular. There is usually a queue of people waiting for the dogs,” says Tim.
“The dogs are friendly and people enjoy getting their photograph taken with them.
“Unfortunately, we decided not to have them this year because of Government guidelines on social distancing.”
After spending 12 months producing thousands of Christmas trees for other people, Tim admits he does not feel the need to put one up in his own home.
“But if there is one left over I might put it up outside with some lights on,” he says.