21 December 2001

SPRUCEUPWITHPIGPOWER…

An ancient practice is helping produce organic

Christmas trees, as Liz Boynton discovers

A RETIRED GP from Hay on Wye is the first Christmas tree producer in the UK to re-introduce the medieval farming practice of using pigs to achieve an organic crop of Norway Spruce.

Derek Wilson, who is a member of the British Christmas Tree Growers Association, bought 12.5ha (31 acres) of land at auction six years ago. A third of the land was the last of a local ancient English oak woodland, and Derek decided to plant 0.4ha (1 acre) of Christmas trees next to the woodland to diversify from his other farming interests.

He explains: "Weeds were a major problem in the Christmas trees. My options were to ignore them completely, use herbicides or the third option, which I used, was strimming three or four times a year. But that was labour intensive and expensive, which has to be added on to the product at the point of sale."

Derek had also been using this method of weed control in the oak woodland but the weeds and brambles were growing faster than the saplings.

"I saw a programme about a large local farm, where Ray Harris the estate forester for the Duchy of Cornwall was experimenting with the ancient art of pannaging, which is using pigs to clean the forest floor. This was last recorded 150 years ago.

"Originally Old English Forest pigs were used for pannaging, but unfortunately these are now extinct. The closest surviving relation is the Tamworth pig.

"Their important feature is they have a long snout. They dont like brambles, but they love the succulent bramble roots. They forage around and eat those and so the brambles die."

With Rays help, Derek introduced two farrowing sows and a boar into the woodland. They discovered that the pigs loved the acorns – most they would eat, but some would be pushed into the ground. When the saplings emerged the pigs would eat the weeds around them, but leave the saplings to grow.

"Unfortunately, although we have an extremely good fence around the pigs, last year they got into the Christmas tree plantation. I thought that would be the end of the trees as other animals eat the young growth. But the pigs completely ignored them and promptly started on the weeds. I thought this is great.

"I planted another three acres of Christmas trees and intended to rotate the pigs between the two areas. But unfortunately this year we ran into problems because of foot-and-mouth and the pigs were in the one plantation longer than I had intended. But we discovered that you cant overgraze Christmas trees."

The pigs are fed organic nuts and organic whey and with no need for herbicides, Derek believes that organic Christmas trees, naturally fertilised by healthy, happy free-range pigs is a good selling point.

"Its important that the public buy British Christmas trees," he says. "Imported trees are cut much earlier, so the needles drop at Christmas time. Although the needles from our trees will drop, because theyre cut anything up to six weeks later, it wont be over the Christmas period."

He is negotiating with a local supermarket to sell his trees from a stall in the car park. The local manager is very supportive, but they are waiting for clearance from head office.

Derek is keen to hear if more recent written evidence of pannaging exists. "We need to re-discover what our ancestors did. Were experimenting and looking for information. Ray has pigs in 500 acres of forest so its hard to gain knowledge – we learn more from the pigs on my 10 acres.

"In these woods Henry II hunted wild boar. I quite like the idea that Henrys boar were rooting in the same ground as my pigs."