With demand on the rise for more trees to put into the ground, the UK’s nurseries are having to adapt to meet the rush. Away from Wrexham’s glitz and glamour, Maelor Forest Nurseries are doing just that. Ben Goh took Forestry Journal on a tour of the site. 

TAKE a moment and picture the first thing that comes to mind when you read the word ‘Wrexham’. 

Do you see rolling Welsh hills? Or maybe it’s the tower of St Giles’ Church? Perhaps you’re even imagining yourself picking up a bargain in the indoor market? 

If you answered yes to any of the above, the chances are you’re either a liar or have been living under a particularly stubborn rock these past few months. The correct answer, of course, concerns ‘A-list celebrity’, and you don’t need to work for MI5 to uncover pictures of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney holding the scarf of Wrexham AFC aloft, their Hollywood smiles at odds with the scene around them. 

Forestry Journal: Ryan Reynolds, left, and Rob McElhenney Ryan Reynolds, left, and Rob McElhenney

The pair – the owners of the football team – have been the talk of the town in recent times, a status only intensified by appearances at Wembley, when Blake Lively (wife of Ryan) joined them. Readers in Scotland simply replace Wrexham with Albion Rovers and you will get an idea of just how polar opposite the planes of existence between Reynolds, Lively, McElhenney and the Red Dragons are. 

But there’s more to Wrexham than Americans trying to figure out the offside rule and the documentary cameras following their every move; you just have to be prepared to drive a little further south to find it. 

If you do, you’re likely to stumble on Maelor Forest Nurseries and its endless fields, putting you right on the front line of Britain’s tree-planting crusade. 

It was early May when Forestry Journal took the long, winding road through a sea of golden, yellow flowers towards the nursery’s central hub. There we met Ben Goh, commercial manager of the site, for a tour. After the usual pleasantries were exchanged – during which Ben told of how he’d made the jump from the biomass side of forestry to nurseries last year – we donned our hi-vis vests and headed out into the Welsh wind. 

“There are a lot of challenges but it is possible to get it right,” Ben said. “It’s very much a long-term project; we’re sowing seed now that won’t go out the door for four years. Then it will be planted and harvested, but that’s not for 40 years down the line.

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“We’re not just thinking of tree breeding and improvement, but of the challenges of biodiversity and trying to get that right.

“It’s not just a case of foresters coming to us and telling us what they want; there’s more of a dialogue. We do lead a lot in terms of what we’re planting, and will tell them what is available.

“It’s a lot like an orchestra. There are a lot of parts going on over the top of each other and we just have to make sure they sound right.” 

Wrexham, and its 200 hectares, is actually just one of Maelor’s nurseries in the UK. The other is in Darnaway, near Inverness, and between them they produce around 35 million trees every year. Ben oversees all of it. 

“We collect seeds, we treat seeds, we have seed orchards; we sow it, we grow the trees on. We do bare-root and cell-grown. 

“We have facilities to store seeds. With something like cherry, for example, you want to take the flesh off the outside and dry the seed out; we have all the machines for that. With birch, a fine, dry seed, you want to separate the seeds.” 

Our tour began in earnest inside the processing room, where a mixture of kilns and other machinery are used to facilitate newly arrived seeds. At the time of our visit the place was empty, but Ben explained it is standing room only at the peak of the planting season. “In the busy period, there are seeds all over the place.” 

Forestry Journal: Maelor’s Wrexham site covers 200 hectares of Welsh land.Maelor’s Wrexham site covers 200 hectares of Welsh land.

While many of Maelor’s seeds are grown in the UK, it’s not unusual for them to be imported. 

“If, for example, we’re looking for improved Douglas fir, we might get stuff from west-coast US or Canada. We also get some seeds from Europe and Asia. It’s about making sure we have the right products.

“When it comes to native broadleaves, it’s collections from Great Britain. But when it comes to stuff like oak for timber, we actually don’t have seed orchards here in the UK, so we’ll buy from the continent. 

“The short answer really is they come from all over the world.” 

Heading back outside, we stopped at a field to see some recently planted Sitka spruce.

Like much of what Maelor does, it is being grown with timber harvesting in mind. But – fresh from a discussion on species selection at the Institute of Chartered Foresters’ (ICF) national conference – this raises a question; has Ben noticed any change in the variety of species desired during his admittedly short time on the front line? 

Forestry Journal: Ben Goh, commercial director, Maelor Forest Nurseries.Ben Goh, commercial director, Maelor Forest Nurseries.

After a pause, he answered: “There is a change in people’s objectives. If you look at 30 or 40 years ago, there was a lot of new planting of conifers for timber. The tax regime changed and the focus came off that. We actually need the timber, so those priorities are coming back but we also have the need for biodiversity; there’s increased focus on that.

“It’s a really interesting question and it’s one I ask often. Ultimately, the guys who are planting the trees have to make that call. For them it’s a difficult thing; it’s like an investment. 

“Anything can happen over the 40 years you plant them. You can only plan for a likely future and, if you get it wrong, no one is going to thank you.

“All we can do is a bit of what we have always done and some new stuff. If it changes, we can respond within a few years.

“For future-proofing and climate change, people are thinking of alternative conifers, alternative broadleaves. It’s an ever-changing picture, and there is a lot of discussion. It might feel like two camps, but in reality it’s two parts of the same pie. We service both markets.” 

Forestry Journal: Care is taken to ensure conditions are right.Care is taken to ensure conditions are right.

One thing both markets do have in common is rising demand. Forestry is – as the old pun goes – a growing industry. Long before bemused schoolchildren are pictured in their local newspaper, freshly muddied spades in hand, trees have to be grown by nurseries like Maelor. But each time DEFRA tries to inch ever-so slightly closer towards its tree-planting goals of 7,500 hectares per year, it only adds more pressure to a section of the industry still feeling the effects of COVID and Brexit. 

That double whammy has hindered nurseries’ ability to recruit staff to fulfill traditionally labour-heavy roles within their operation. Maelor is no different, but has invested heavily in a plan to adapt the way it does things to a more automated model. 

The new miniplug production facility, built at a cost of £4 million, hadn’t quite opened on the day of our visit but it will soon be at the heart of the operation. By allowing seeds to be sown directly into trays – known as 345 trays – and with the germination taking place in a controlled environment, the site, Ben explained, will lead to a better consistency of yield in tree supply. Sometimes rising from around 50 per cent to an all-but-certain 90 per cent each and every time. 

Forestry Journal: Species are grown in the lab.Species are grown in the lab.

“Traditionally, when we are sowing seeds, we cast it out in the field,” Ben said. “We’ll prepare beds at whatever density we require. The issue is with the changing climate – dry springs and hot summers – the seedlings are at their most vulnerable at this stage.

And you will also get variation with your field and unpredictability.

“We need all the trees to make the grade. With those factors, you can lose a lot of your yield.

“One way to control that is to sow the seed undercover or indoors. These 345 trays will get filled with compost and the seed will be sowed in that. 

“We can irrigate, we can control weeds and pests a lot better. If there is a frost, the temperature will drop, but you’re insulated from the worst of it.

“That will offer more consistency. They will be a bit more robust. 

“Germination in there might be 95 per cent, depending on species. Whereas out in the field it can be 50, 60, 70 per cent.” 

Forestry Journal: The new miniplug facility could revolutionise the way plants are grown at the nursery.The new miniplug facility could revolutionise the way plants are grown at the nursery.

In brief, the facility instantly alleviates two of Maelor’s most persistent problems. Not only does it protect seedlings from the worst effects of the changing climate – and anyone who paid attention during the ICF conference will know these are only going to get worse before they get better – but it reduces the demand for manual labour. But, Ben added, no existing jobs will be lost when the site clicks into gear. There will just be less need to fill new ones when the planting season gets underway again. 

“If you are getting 95 per cent success, you’ll still have gaps. Maybe 15 or 16 blanks. What will happen now is those gaps will be filled in by the automated process.

“It means you have a full tray going into the machine. It all helps with making the best use of the land and the seed we have. You don’t want to waste seed and time.

“The whole nursery operation is very intense, while this is a lot more automated. We employ a lot of people here but have struggled with labour a lot, like many nurseries. This is an unavoidable thing.

“One of the major challenges in planting with trays is the movement of them. If you have thousands of trays, that can be highly labour intensive. The new facility actually has conveyor belts that are so much more efficient.” 

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Mercifully, with the wind picking up again, we moved back inside, but in this section of the tour, the subject matter grew a little bit more complex. We headed into Maelor’s on-site laboratory where Shelagh McCartan, the science R&D manager, and her team work around the clock to perfect seeds before they are even sown. Using an ‘advanced vegetative technique’, they “turn one seed into thousands”, reducing the length of the breeding cycle 

“The process starts with control pollination, which is what we are doing right now,” Shelagh said, explaining that spruce – and various combinations of it – is the main product used by the lab. 

“A few weeks ago, we closed the seed orchard and pollinated them. In about six to eight weeks’ time, we will harvest the mature seeds.”

Leaving Shelagh and her team to their important work, we moved back outside for the final section of our tour, which took us further into the fields. 

It’s there the question of BSW Timber – which purchased Maelor in 2019 – came up.

Unlike many other nurseries, Ben’s is linked to each tree’s full life cycle, at least those grown for commercial purposes. This, he says, has paved the way for conversations that for too long didn’t happen. 

Forestry Journal: Machinery remains an important cog in the process. Machinery remains an important cog in the process.

“We have the BSW sawmilling side, the forest management side, harvesting, site works; you name it. There really is involvement in every step from the seed, to the tree and beyond.

“A lot of their focus is on engineered wood products, and that fits nicely into what we do. We can have a lot of discussion about why we are growing trees – is it to get the most planks out of a tree? And how might that change? 

“Those conversations are ongoing and I don’t think they happened much in the past. It throws up some interesting things that we maybe didn’t think about previously.” 

The partnership also appears to have led to some outside-of-the-box thinking and the week after our visit Ben and other members of the team were due to attend the Borders Book Festival. Yes, a book festival, taking with them a selection of young tree species to be handed out to guests in return for a donation and the chance to start a conversation.

Will those attending really know where their trees come from? They certainly will after five minutes with Ben. 

Forestry Journal: Work is ongoing to improve the site’s crop.Work is ongoing to improve the site’s crop.

On that note, we asked him about one of the current hot topics. Which species does he recommend for those interested in planting trees for carbon sequestration? As with so many things, the answer isn’t a simple one. 

“Our carbon issue is in the next 20 to 30 years, so it’s now, really. If you look at the carbon uptake of different species and plant something like an oak, it will have a fairly steady growth for 200 years, then tail off. If you look at a conifer, it will grow a lot quicker and peak a lot sooner. 

“But you need to look at the total benefits of that. You will grow the conifer, then harvest it for timber before growing another crop. By the time you get to the 200 years of the oak, you’ve done the confer cycle five, six times. Plus, we need the timber.

“If you want to lock up carbon, both in terms of quantity and speed, you want to create timber. 

Forestry Journal:  A mixture of species ready to be sent to customers. A mixture of species ready to be sent to customers.

“Don’t get me wrong, that’s not optimum in terms of biodiversity – though it’s not terrible. But you do need to plant broadleaves to meet ambitions around biodiversity. You need to do both and can’t address one single issue with a single species.

“All of the issues are pretty urgent. There is plenty of room to do all of those things – including reaching planting targets – but we need to crack on with it and not get bogged down with arguments. We need to do a lot more than we’ve been doing.” 

As we came to the end of our tour, Ben showed us some of species that are nearly ready to leave the nursery, including oaks, hazels and monkey puzzles. Even Ben was surprised by the sight of the latter, but a forester somewhere is keen to get their hands on it. And that’s the key to everything Maelor does in Wrexham. 

“There has to be demand for everything we produce. There’s no point in us growing something if we can’t sell it. We’re a commercial nursery.” 

Maybe next time someone mentions Wrexham, rather than Reynolds, McElhenny and company, Maelor Forest Nurseries will come to mind.