Borders-based nursery Cheviot Trees was among the first companies in the UK to produce cell-grown plants, over three decades ago. Fraser Rummens recently met up with company founder Harry Frew and sales and marketing manager Jonathan Cameron to discuss the benefits of the cell-grown system, and what the current political focus on trees means for the nursery sector.

SITUATED a stone’s throw from the border, wholesale plant nursery Cheviot Trees of Berwick-upon-Tweed produces millions of trees per year.

Founded by Harry Frew in 1985, Cheviot Trees started life in Wooler, Northumberland, producing cell-grown vegetables to supply farmers. The seasonal nature of vegetable production led Harry to look into other ways he could better utilise the nursery out of season. Two years later, Cheviot Trees was among the first companies in the UK to produce cell-grown plants.

Cheviot Trees moved to its current facility in 1991 and focuses purely on tree-planting and the supply of planting accessories.

There are many benefits to cell-grown trees, Harry told me when I visited the Cheviot nursery recently.

Forestry Journal: Harry Frew explaining the benefits of cell-grown trees on site.Harry Frew explaining the benefits of cell-grown trees on site.

“It’s a progression; a way forward for the industry,” he said. The fact that the root system of the stock is supplied intact means it can be easily planted and can offer a better chance of successful establishment than the bare-root plant. Cell-grown trees can also be planted over an extended planting season – all year round, more or less.

“We lend ourselves to contract growing because we can optimise survival out of seed in a controlled environment, in a container, whereas with field sowing, you can get more field effect, especially if it is a small batch. For some customers we sow their specific seeds and grow them on contract for them. Approximately 75 per cent of our production is contract grown,” Harry explained.

Forestry Journal: The Cheviot Trees site in Berwick-upon-Tweed.The Cheviot Trees site in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

“That means we’ve discussed it, customers have ordered it, maybe for next year, maybe the following year. We have some customers with up to ten-year contracts, which is great because customers know what they’re getting, we know what they need, when to sow it, etc.

“Short, no-notice, spot purchasing is becoming increasingly tricky because the stock is no longer off the shelf. Now it’s an unusual situation which we’ve not had for 35 years. There are exciting changes and opportunities in the marketplace.”

Harry went on: “Planting declined massively from 1988 until just within the last five years where things have picked up and stabilised, and in Scotland things have been really picking up. Targets have been increased and budgets have been increased, enthusiasm for forestry has increased greatly.

“In our growing environment cell-grown trees tend to grow more quickly. Cheviot produces two crops a year, perhaps three in certain parts of the nursery. This quicker growth allows Cheviot to adapt to changes in the marketplace more easily.

“Whereas plants can sometimes be two to three years old in a bare-root situation, we can actually change our direction quite quickly, so that’s always something that’s got us through the trickier times of planting,” Harry added.

Forestry Journal: The trees are initially stored in a polytunnel where temperature and irrigation can be controlled.The trees are initially stored in a polytunnel where temperature and irrigation can be controlled.

Jonathan Cameron, Cheviot Trees sales and marketing manager, explained: “The growing facilities that we’ve got here are all very controllable. At a bare-root nursery, plants are at the mercy of weather conditions, predation as well, whereas here we can have everything initially in a polytunnel, where we can control temperature, irrigation and lots of different factors.”

Cheviot has invested in a robust IT system which manages the entire process from seed to sale. Jonathan continued: “In our dispatch office we can see all of the week’s operation at a glance, as to where lorries are going, which I think is quite unusual for a forest nursery situation; a lot of it is just on a whiteboard or a book, and that probably works, but we’re going all over the place, not just covering one area. And because we do a lot of the tree shelters and stakes as well, that takes a lot of planning from the purchasing side to make sure that you have got the full 20 lines of the customer’s order all sitting ready to go, you’ve got the right space on the lorry and you know the site requirements – it’s pretty sophisticated.

“We have to do it that way given the amount of deliveries that we’re doing all over the place, and that software is used by everyone in the office and outside as well. So as soon as the seed is sown it is traced right the way through until when it is sold, for full traceability.”

Forestry Journal: Jonathan Cameron and Harry Frew.Jonathan Cameron and Harry Frew.

The huge push from government to up tree-planting targets going forward and the benefits of the cell-grown system are ideally suited. It must be exciting times for nurseries, I suggested.

“It’s good. It’s exciting and it’s a challenge, but we’ve got to control it,” Harry said. “There aren’t many nurseries in the UK but if all of them grow too many trees too quickly, it might be the wrong species, it might be the wrong seed source, there may be too many and then we go into surplus again, and that’s not good for the sector. Nurseries are concerned and they want to see progressive, structured growth to the market. Trees need to come away from being political, which they have suddenly become, and we need to have a better long-term understanding of the environment. That’ll help.”

Forestry Journal: Young trees in Cheviot Trees’ polytunnel.Young trees in Cheviot Trees’ polytunnel.

He continued: “What we really need for the nursery sector to expand is stability. We need forward planning from government and from customers, but from government particularly, who are trying to stimulate planting. We need longer assured targets and longer-term thinking. We’ve got to have a steady target because this is a very long-term industry. If we’re growing a plant it takes us 12 to 18 months to grow it, but it takes a year and a half before that to order the seed, to collect the seed, to treat the seed, and then we’ve got another year to sell it; so we’re more or less working on a five-year thought process.

“We already plant in the region of 45 to 50 million new trees every year, then we are also restocking on top of that, so that’s a considerable quantity, and there is always a bit of other planting – landscape and amenity planting – but that’s fairly small. If the politicians are giving us new promises, we need to know if these numbers include what’s already being planted that they are not necessarily aware of, or is it on top of existing planting. Either way, big targets are all very well, but we need time and planning, and then there are the questions of ‘Where’s the land coming from?’ and ‘Who’s going to plant it?’”

Jonathan added: “It’s exciting. It’s very, very fashionable but for us it’s just going to be about keeping things consistent, not doing too much that we end up struggling on other aspects because you can go and produce an extra four or five million trees by building new nursery space but you have to have the sales backup and all the other logistics that go with it, which doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not just within the industry that people are talking about it now – we’ve been talking about it for years – but others are talking about it now and realising the importance of it. It’s exciting times.”

Forestry Journal: The Cheviot Trees team sorting seeds by hand.The Cheviot Trees team sorting seeds by hand.

Another big challenge facing nurseries at the moment is biosecurity, Harry said.

“We have to have good movement controls. We’ve always had plant passports – yes, there are new regs, now including the landscape sector, but the forestry sector itself has always had plant passports. Therefore, we have good controls in our sector. We can be as good as we can, but if other sectors bring in plants, which come in with a pest or a disease which spreads to all the other plants, we’re only as good as the weakest link, so we are very concerned for the biosecurity of UK forestry.

“The big tree market can be more of a risk because they’re growing trees to be larger, therefore older, with more time for a pest or disease to be established on the tree. The nursery sector and plant trade import a lot of big trees because we don’t grow enough of our own. There is more biosecurity risk therefore, as we have seen with the recent importation of the oak processionary moth.”

Cheviot Trees has been involved in a number of high-profile infrastructure projects over the years, supplying trees for the likes of the Aberdeen bypass, the Forth Road Bridge and the M6 toll to name but a few. This type of work is well suited to Cheviot because while the client doesn’t necessarily require a huge quantity, it does require special seed sources, Harry explained.

Forestry Journal: Modules for growing trees.Modules for growing trees.

The company has also seen success with its range of planting accessories including shelters, guards, mats, stakes, planting tools and ties.

Jonathan said: “The way I have always looked at it is that the company has always been very diverse. We have always looked at doing slightly different products and doing little specialist projects and products because a lot of our customers look to us to provide the full package, so they want one lorry to turn up with all of the trees, all of the shelters, stakes – everything on it.

“When the market hasn’t been as strong in previous years, when other nurseries have been burning surplus trees and disposing of them, we’ve not been in that situation because we have a real diverse customer base so we can shift trees into other markets when forestry hasn’t been as buoyant. Sometimes that does come at the expense of tree production in that you can’t produce as many trees because you are producing a wider range, which takes a bit more time and more labour, but I think it has paid off in previous years.”

Looking ahead, Cheviot Trees intends to reduce the number of species it is growing from 80 to around 40 or 50 – still a broad range, but it will allow the company to focus on volume of certain species.

Harry added: “There is a good buzz now and at last the forestry nurseries are feeling more confident. The forest nurseries are the foundation of the whole forest industry – they support it almost single-handed!”