WITH SHOOTING high on the priority list, it was the woodlands that persuaded the Agnew family to buy the Rougham Estate in 1904.

Since then, while trees on many farms have been replaced by more profitable crops, the Agnews have maintained the woodland, winning awards for forestry management in the process.

The estate runs to 1215ha (3000 acres), including 263ha (650 acres) of mainly broad-leaved woodlands, with the balance in cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet.

“Having an interest in trees is a family tradition,” says George Agnew, who now runs the farm. “We used to employ three people full-time on forestry work and the estate had its own commercial sawmill, but those days are gone.”

Management of the woodland has been handed over to a specialist firm and the family no longer employs anyone on the forestry side. The sawmill was closed years ago when its financial viability became unstable.

“It is difficult to make money out of traditional woodlands on our acreage. The official index for returns from forestry stood at 100 in 1996. It is now 27,” says Mr Agnew.

“We rely on Forestry Commission grants to provide an income while we guarantee to replant areas that are felled.”

Small-scale Christmas tree production started on the estate about 50 years ago and the acreage expanded when it became clear that Christmas trees could return a profit, while margins from general forestry were in decline.

Five years ago, the area spanned 8ha (20 acres), but that has recently grown to 12ha (30 acres) and further expansion is planned.

About 60 per cent of the trees are standard Norway Spruce, but other varieties that attract premium prices are taking more of the acreage. Nordman Fir is popular because it resists needle drop, while, as the only UK native variety, Scots Pine is enjoying something of a comeback.

The trees are sold from the estate”s large 16th century thatched barn where an annual Christmas Fair attracts about 15,000 people.

10 DOWNING STREET

While the fair is obviously good for tree sales, demand received a boost when the estate won the top award from the British Christmas Tree Growers Association. The winning grower supplies the tree outside 10 Downing Street, and Rougham”s award two years ago earned much publicity.

Mr Agnew is forecasting sales of about 5000 trees this year. Prices for trees under 10ft are 2 per foot for Norway Spruce, while other varieties sell for 4 per foot.

Nick”s Pics/Xmas Tree.jpg Rougham Christmas Trees

10,000 trees/ha (4000/acre)

Growth rates 30cm/year (1ft)

Average harvest height 1.6m (5ft)

Rotation Seven years 

Looses Allow for 40% 

Average annual return 8570/ha for Norway Spruce and 17,140/ha for other varieties)

Figures do not allow for any costs incurred. Christmas trees have a high labour requirement for planting, spraying, pruning and harvest