Christmas isn't Christmas without a tree
PUBLISHED: 12:45 24 November 2015 | UPDATED: 12:45 24 November 2015
And Suffolk’s Elveden estate has been growing them for more than 40 years, as James Marston discovers. Photos by Gregg Brown
If you see a large Christmas tree festooned in lights in a UK town or city centre the chances are it has come from Suffolk. Or, more specifically from the Elveden estate.
Developed over the last 50 or so years, the estate’s Christmas tree operation supplies around 1,000 20ft to 70ft display trees to towns and cities across the country. Birmingham, Edinburgh, St Paul’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Canary Wharf, the Natural History Museum, Manchester and various Royal Households are among the estate’s Christmas tree customers.
Edward Guinness, the Earl of Iveagh, runs the 22,000 acre farming and forestry estate.
“The Christmas trees started about 50 years ago when a chap called Arthur Gough, who was in charge of the forestry on the estate, realised there was a value to large trees that were destined to go into the pulped wood market.
“He began to find there was an alternative market for large display Christmas trees and they became a feature of the estate operations.” Today the large display trees provided by the estate are joined by thousands of retail trees sold directly to customers by the estate.
“In the 1980s I remember we sold wholesale trees to Gateway supermarket and we kept some back to sell directly to the customer from a corner of the walled garden,” recalls Lord Iveagh. “Over the years it developed and we started to sell wreaths and Christmas foliage.
“It just grew with time and word of mouth, and people started to come to us for their trees. For many people coming here is part of their family Christmas tradition which is lovely.”
As volumes have increased, the operation now employs 25 staff in the run up to Christmas providing 4,500 trees direct to the public. The estate yard has since been developed to become The Courtyard, a retail and restaurant operation that offers a range of good all year round.
At one of the estate’s several tree plantations, James Holliday, the estate’s forestry and conservation manager explains how they are grown.
“They are planted at the end of February from a seedling. We do harvest seed on the estate in order to keep the quality consistent.”
For James, who previously worked on The Queen’s Windsor estate, looking after the trees is a year-round job.
“Last year we planted 12,500 trees. They do require irrigation during the dry summer months and we have also learned that we get better quality trees if we use a slow release fertiliser.” The plantations are also surrounded by 6ft fences to protect against deer damage.
“Generally a tree takes a year to get established and after that they grow a foot a year so an 8ft tree will take nine years to grow. The sandy soil here lends itself to Christmas trees. It means we can get at them easily in the winter to harvest them. If it was clay soil it would be much more difficult.”
The Elveden estate donates trees to a number of nearby towns including Bury St Edmunds, Newmarket, Brandon and Thetford. Species grown include the Nordmann Fir, Norway Spruce – the traditional Christmas tree variety – and the Sitka Spruce used for the big displays. They sell from £15 to £15,000 depending on the size and customer requirements.
“We deliver all over the UK, and we put up the tree, decorate and light the tree and take it away again if required. We also are encouraging people to bring back their trees after Christmas as we can recycle them.”
Sales increased by 10 percent last year, and the estate’s management team is hoping for growth this year.
“Much of the estate is made up of non economical woodland,” syas Lord Iveagh. “The income from the Christmas trees allows us to manage that woodland and to employ the foresters we need to ensure the woodland, and in turn the diversity of wildlife and habitat the estate provides.
“The forestry office is always busy at this time of year, we never know where the next order will be for – there is never a dull moment.”