TREES hold no fear for the Duff family of Wester Auchentroig farm, as their main income for several years now has been their annual crop of premium fir trees for the Christmas market.

But while the Duffs are no strangers to quick-growing conifers, they needed to enlist some professional advice when it came to establishing a broadleaf woodland that could act as a longer term investment for their business. The Scottish Farmer visited their picturesque property, west of Buchlyvie and a mere stone’s throw from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, to hear about their past and future diversifications into forestry.

The Duffs came to Wester Auchentroig back in 1959, at which time it was a dairy. Those milkers went off in in the 1970s, and the farm was turned over to an 80-strong traditional beef herd, running alongside 600 sheep. However, as current head of the clan Euan recalls, his grandfather had grown Christmas trees at the family’s previous Dunblane home, so when he spotted some ‘little packets of land’ that couldn’t be used for anything else, he carried on that tradition by popping in some firs as a wee ‘hobby’.

Word got around, and soon local folk knew where to come for the best trees, and demand began to outstrip supply, leading to more land dedicated to the festive crop, bigger and better marketing contacts, more dedicated machinery and, ultimately, that ‘wee hobby’ became the heart of the business. The last livestock went off seven years ago, and the farm now has 350 acres devoted to growing a mix of Nordman firs, from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, and Fraser firs, from Roan Mountain, in South Carolina, part of the Blue Ridge mountain range. The Duffs sell some 50,000 trees a year, retail, wholesale and ‘pick your own’, with the bulk of their sales down south via a tie-up with distributor ‘Needlefresh’.

Via that network, their trees have enjoyed some prestigious placements – for example, there were two of Auchentroig’s finest in the Tower of London last year. Those kind of centrepiece trees don’t just spring up as nature intended.

Because, contrary to what ‘proper’ farmers might believe, growing productive well-formed trees is never just a matter of plonking the seedlings in the ground, and then walking away to find something else to do for a decade.

Sitting in the farm kitchen, Euan stressed to me that the family – himself, wife Flick, and strapping sons Dougie and Sandy, who were both indulging in herculean consumption of eggs as an accompaniment to rugby training – alongside business mainstay Russ Gilbert, were busy all year round with the establishment and management of the various ages of plantation needed to maintain their annual output.

“We start preparing the ground in January, then there is planting, fertilising, spraying, thinning... and when it gets to this time of year, things really take off, and you just don’t stop between now and the decorations going up,” he said. “The yard out there will soon be full of pallets and the farm road will see a lot of traffic.”

For planting early in the year, the young firs are bought in at three to four years old from a nursery in Denmark, which is also where a lot of the specialised machinery comes from, given that the Danes have long excelled at the production of celebratory conifers.

On a good planting day, Euan reckoned that him and the boys will get 17,000 or 18,000 into the ground. To produce those 50,000 saleable trees, some 80,000 are planted, with a proportion lost, thinned out, or mulched over the course of their six or seven years of growth on the farm.

Crucially, the firs are all planted using GPS, precisely spread out, which in turn allows for precision management, in terms of sprays, using a Danish split-body tracked machine, and the pruning off of the unwanted lower branches via a purpose-built rig that runs up the row with blades mounted on hydraulically driven drums at ground level. As such, that side of the Duff’s business is a highly calibrated production line, and they are clearly proud of the crop that it produces.

However, there were parts of the farm sitting unused and unloved, which prompted Euan to get in touch with Peter Mitchell, who he had first known via the Xmas tree business, but who is now working with Fountains Forestry, a national company concerned with the establishment and management of longer-lived timber crops, with an office in Stirling.

Peter recalled: “Euan had identified a bit of land that wasn’t good enough for Xmas tree growth – we had a look and decided it was good enough for more long-term trees, so plans were hatched to create a productive and environmentally beneficial woodland.”

The 15 acre patch in question rises to the hill from the side of a well established fir plantation, on ground which was distinctly wet at the bottom, but got drier as the slope steepened up to the edge of a much older stand of trees. To complicate matters, a pretty major electric power line runs across the middle of the field.

“As a business, Fountains Forestry carries out all the survey work, and then does an outline design, at which point we engage with Scottish Forestry,” explained Peter, who stressed that nothing much could happen with regard to long-rotation trees without the active participation of that statutory body, which was of course know as Forestry Commission Scotland until very recently.

Peter recommends that anyone hoping to establish woodlands ‘engages early’ with SF, as it is now the body with the authority to approve Scotland’s generous planting and maintenance grants, and will emphatically not do so without a site visit.

Issues can arise over archaeology, often forgotten or overlooked on hill ground; water courses, your own, or your neighbour’s, or substantially downstream, if your new plantation is likely to change its flow; Sites of Special Scientific Interest; or just plain old peat depth – because anything above 50cms, and the presumption is against planting as the ground is judged to be of more benefit as a carbon sink without the disturbance of preparation for trees.

Even with a site free of such concerns – and there are surprisingly few that escape completely scot-free – the design process that Fountains carries out is far more involved than one would imagine, and the results are a far cry from the geometric blocks of conifers that awkwardly decorated Scotland’s hills last century. For starters, the industry is now phobic of creating firm edges to a plantation, let alone straight ones – the object these days is to blend forestry into the scenery, with fuzzy boundaries and mixed species, and consider how each plantation is going to look as it grows, taking into account the different growth rates of the trees involved.

Further to that, there is the more technical matter of planting species in ground that suits them, taking into account drainage, prevailing weather and soil type. As the FCS was once fond of saying, most often when farmers challenged the afforestation of traditional farmland, it is all about ‘the right tree in the right place’.

Then, finally, there is the endgame to consider – how best to lay out a plantation with an eye to the day, decades from now, when someone is going to want to go into it and remove heavy quantities of timber in useable, saleable condition?

But all that preparatory work done, and the trees planted as per the plan, does the site owner then get to walk away and watch their investment grow? Having forsaken Wester Auchentroig’s cosy kitchen for a visit to the plantation that Fountains Forestry designed for the Duffs, which is now at the end of its second growing season, Peter was in a position to point out where there was still work needing done

“Formative pruning is crucial,” he said. “Although all the trees going into the ground are from improved stock, and will have been planted in ground that suits them, they will naturally vary in how they grow.”

If the desired finished product is timber fit for manufacture or construction, the young trees will need some careful attention, snipping off secondary leaders to let the main shoot dominate and go on to produce a good straight trunk. This is an operation that can only be done by hand, tree by tree, and it will mean more than a few more busy days for the Duffs.

It is a tricky business traversing a recently planted forestry field, given that its a series of raised ridges and wet ditches, all camouflaged by ground cover that is not yet knocked back by tree-shade – and Peter was labouring with a not-quite-healed broken ankle incurred during a fair but nonetheless painful tackle during a local league football match – but we all soldiered up the slope, to best appreciate the work that had gone into the plantation.

The mix chosen was silver birch and oak, with the birch lower down, as it is happier with its roots wet, and the oak higher up, on the well drained brown soils, and a smattering of rowan around the edges, for a splash of colour. But the naturalistic design was done to a strict plan, with tree placements mapped out in advance, again with precise GPS, which was then passed to the planting contractors, so that they could follow it to the inch.

Euan, who hadn’t been into the field for a while, declared himself very happy with the progress of the birch, some of which had fairly shot away, quite clearly showing where they needed attention from the pruning shears.

By the time we reached the oaks, I was wondering if Peter might need carried back down, given that ditch-jumping most certainly is not on the NHS instruction sheet for the care of ankle fractures, but all the attention was on the trees, as he and Euan admired the stronger saplings, and fretted briefly over some resurgent gorse, until deciding that the trees were far enough ahead to outgrow any challenge from below.

Standing still before our descent, we discussed wildlife: “The owls were fantastic last night, lots of calling,” observed Euan. “We’ve a shelter strip near the farm that is good cover for lots of things, but we find that even the firs are good for nesting birds. These broadleaves will be a great habitat too. It is good to see so much life around the place.”

Peter noted the necessity of ‘vole guards’ on the young broadleaves, little plastic sheaths barely four inches up off the ground, that dissuade nibbling at the bottom, and there was some discussion of hares’ propensity for nibbling the tops off young trees, not for nutrition, but to create bushier cover, and deny predators the high ground. Fencing will always be a cost for foresters, but certainly on Wester Auchentroig, the feeling is that an excess of wildlife is a problem worth having.

With the establishment grant spent on getting the broadleaf plantation right, then five years of lesser official incentives for maintenance work, the returns from those 15 acres will tail off a bit, although there will be thinning needs done, and further branch removal, producing a supply of firewood for sale, or chips for burning in the steading’s biomass boiler. Thereafter it will be 15 to 20 years before there is useable birch timber to harvest, and substantially longer for the oak, although when it is ready, it’ll be a truly premium locally-produced raw material.

“I suppose you could call this the pension plantation,” Euan smiled. “But it is really something we are doing for the children – and the grandchildren.”