Fir Trade alive and kicking in Perthshire

There’s nothing like a real tree beautifully decorated for Christmas. But it’s also big business, worth around £200 million in the UK alone, writes Chitra Ramaswamy

IT’S a dark November morning in Perthshire. Winter, at least in this corner of the country, has finally arrived. The sky is the colour of lead, mirrored in muddy pools of water. Rain wets the heads of the distant hills. Five miles from Dunblane, on the road to Auchterarder, a blink-and-you’d-miss-it sign with a tiny tree painted on it tells us to turn left. Now the evidence is everywhere. Trees on their sides, swaddled in nets. Trees crowding fields like festivalgoers waiting for a band. Trees spiking the horizon, tops like fingers pointing to the sky. Squat and bushy ones. Tall and willowy ones. Tiny, scrappy ones. Ones that smell like a bottle of Badedas bath foam. Ones with pin-sharp needles that would make your hoover wheeze. They are, of course, Christmas trees.

Welcome to Mark Spurway’s farm. This (or somewhere like it) is where your Christmas tree begins its life before – five, ten, 15, even 20 years later – ending up in your living room, trussed up in tinsel and lights, silently shedding its needles until January. Well, that’s if it’s a Norway Spruce, which is unlikely. The old-school Norway – forest green, beautifully scented, prickly as a porcupine, and the worst of the needle droppers – is the shoeless orphan, the Oliver Twist of Christmas trees. Ever since Britain’s love affair with Nordmann Fir began a decade or so ago, the Norway Spruce has been left out in the cold.

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“The most beautiful, traditional tree, the one we all grew up with,” sighs Spurway, clearly moved as he shakes one out of its net. Granted, a shower of needles falls, but he’s right. It’s a classic: the Delia Smith Christmas pud to the Nordmann’s jazzy Jamie Oliver version. “Just because it drops its needles, it’s no longer flavour of the month,” he goes on. “Look at this one. It’s an absolute stunner. But the Norway’s name has been trashed. It’s all down to marketing. I wish we could grow these and nothing else.”

But what about the needles? “If you don’t put a tree in water, what do you expect?” he bats back. “You wouldn’t bring a bunch of cut flowers home and put them in a dry vase, would you? A 6ft Christmas tree will drink 15 litres of water in two days. They need water. That’s why we can’t cut them down until the last minute.”

Spurway’s farm cuts and sells tens of thousands of Christmas trees each year. He grows three varieties: Nordmann Fir, which makes up around 70 per cent of his crop, Fraser Fir, the most popular tree in America but apparently “an ugly beast if you get it wrong”, and Norway Spruce, which Spurway now only grows and cuts to order. Around 95 per cent of his trees are sold in the UK and his suppliers are mostly wholesalers, garden centres and fruit markets. Spurway’s farm is medium-sized, covering several hundred acres. Still, that’s a fair amount of Christmas trees. And a few miles away his brother owns another Christmas tree farm, both of them operating under a Belgian partner called Greencap to avoid any need to undercut one another. Spurway’s brother specialises in Scots pine, fourth on the list of top sellers though apparently adored in Leeds and Hull. “It’s a family business,” Spurway explains. “My dad, Humphrey, farmed Christmas trees here before me. My first planting was in 2000 but there are bigger trees here, 25-footers, that my dad planted in the 1980s. He’s 70 now and he still plants trees every April. He can’t help himself. He’ll be 85 by the time he sells them…” This is a place, I’m starting to realise, where time is measured in Christmas trees. Later I meet Humphrey’s personal cutter and farm manager, Ian Black. “See that wood over there,” he says pointing to mature firs ascending to at least 25ft (about 8m). “I planted those when I started here. So that must have been about 30 years ago.”

Despite the increase in sales of artificial trees, the real ones remain big business. According to the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, there are around eight million trees grown in the UK solely for the purpose of Christmas, and a quarter of them are farmed in Scotland. The UK market alone is worth around £200 million a year.

“We buy them when they are roughly three years old,” says Spurway as we head off in his mud-spattered Land Rover to check out the remaining Nordmanns. Most have already been cut. On the way, Spurway shows me a field of trees planted in 2008, which at first sight looks like weeds. Look again, though, and you see the tiny, prickly, trees peeping through, hidden from the wild deer and rabbits that love to feast on them.

“In six years we’ll be selling these. The first year or two they do very little. They need to get their roots established. Then, see those leaders?” Spurway points to the tops of the trees. (The branches, by the way, are known as internodes.) “That’s the part they put on each year. Once you’ve nailed it they can grow a foot a year.”

The great cut begins at the start of November and goes on throughout the month. Two thousand trees are cut down every day at this farm. After being left to “shut down” for two days, the trees are fed into a netting machine, stacked in pallets, then transported by lorry to their destination. All of this happens fast, to stop them shedding needles. “This is unlike any other tree farming, because the wood isn’t for timber,” explains Spurway. “They’re grown for one reason and one reason only: Christmas. What we want to do is slow the trees down to give them their shape. A tree will grow 2ft a year if you let it. And if a Christmas tree grows too quickly, it becomes gappy and the leader gets too long. If it grows too slowly it looks like a little fat ball.”

In the field of Nordmann Firs the trees are different shapes and sizes. All have the Nordmann colour – a luscious blue/green – and the large, soft needles for which they are favoured. They grow at varying rates and have different standards. “That’s why we can’t just go in and blanket cut the trees,” says Spurway. “In the autumn I start labelling them, deciding which ones to cut down.”

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You might expect a committed team of cutters to be working here. In fact, the task of cutting every single tree falls to a lone Polish woodsman called Mariusz Kielczynski, or “Cret” as he’s known. He looks the business in ear defenders, brandishing a small chainsaw. Spurway calls him “Europe’s greatest cutter” and rewards him with a pie at the end of every shift. The most trees Cret has ever cut is a whopping 2600 in five hours. How long has he been doing this? “Thirteen years,” he says. That’s a lot of Christmas trees. “Aye,” he replies with a grin.

At this time of year, Spurway employs 25 people from local farms and further afield. I meet draggers, netters, farmers, and pallet makers from Dunblane, New Zealand, Romania, and Poland. A decade ago, Danes started to buy up land, and there are now around a dozen Danish farmers running Christmas tree farms in Scotland. “Most of our trees come from Denmark,” Spurway explains. “So the Danes cottoned on that Scottish land is good for Christmas trees. And the land and labour are cheaper here.”

Our morning ends in the vast shed, where the team play indoor football in January, before the year commences with planting in March. What does Spurway make of the argument against real trees? What would he say to the notion that a tree growing for 15 years only to be cut down, stuck in a sitting room for a few weeks, then chucked out for the council to take away is not exactly environmentally friendly? “I just don’t understand that argument,” Spurway says. “Why is a plastic tree made in some factory in China, then fired across the sea and probably replaced every few years better than a tree grown, tended and cut in Scotland, sold at the Glasgow fruit market and all in the knowledge that another tree has been planted in its place? Who’s got the bigger carbon footprint? Not me. And we’re employing people, using the land, and the trees degrade. They are chipped and go back into the ground. Christmas trees couldn’t be any greener if they tried.”

Outside the shed, the work goes on. The air hangs heavy with the scent of pine. Lorries arrive to be loaded up. Trees are stacked on to pallets. Others “relax” on the roadside. Pheasants wander around, the only witnesses to the annual festive race against time. “Look at this one,” says Spurway, freeing a Fraser Fir from its netting. “You can see where we’ve pruned and sheared this tree so that its internodes have flushed properly through the summer. If we didn’t do that it would just go up and up and be an ugly brute. You’ve got to put the work in to get them looking like this.”

He smiles proudly and runs his fingers over the needles. “This one is top standard, bushy, very green, a great weight all the way up… Yes, this one’s a real beauty.”