These islands of ours have a distinct shortage of trees. They grow on only 12 percent of the UK’s land surface while the average for the rest of Europe is three times greater. Still, things are getting better – back in the 1940s we were down to five percent – and campaigns such as that of the Woodland Trust, to plant 20 million extra trees in the next five decades, should help narrow the gap.
But one type of tree grows in profusion here, in plantations that cover more than half a million acres. It is, of course, the Christmas tree, and right now around eight million are being chopped down to decorate the nation’s living rooms during the festive season.
Growers are hoping for better sales than in 2013, when bad weather, rather than the tightening of purse strings, prevented some people from collecting their trees. The British Christmas Tree Growers Association tells me 95 percent of the trees we buy are home-grown, and the industry makes a vital contribution to the rural economy.
But there is a growing threat to these much-loved little conifers. It comes in the form of a fungus called red band needle blight, which is infecting millions of pines across the country and is just one of many exotic pests and pathogens now putting Britain’s woodlands under threat as never before.
The Forestry Commission (FC) tells me the blight is killing increasing numbers of lodgepole pines – not the most popular of Christmas tree species (that honour goes to the nordman pine), but one much admired for its shape and its ability not to shed needles.
The blight has hit Corsican pines so badly that the FC has stopped planting them because of the high risk they will not survive. Our only native species, the Scots pine, is also showing signs of infection, but foresters hope it will prove more resistant.
So far, most of our Christmas trees have escaped this fungal threat, and after their 12 days or so of glory, more than half will be recycled into compost (go to www.recyclenow.com to see if your local council collects).
Many others are just thrown away, but in years to come they could all be powering cars, according to the Dutch research company DSM. Scientists there are working on a process in which sugar from an average Christmas tree weighing 10kg (22lb) could produce 4l (7pts) of ethanol, enough to travel 25 miles.
This so-called ‘white technology’ is still at the laboratory stage but scientists reckon that if the eight million trees sold in the UK this Christmas could be converted, there would be enough ethanol to drive a car around the world 7,967 times. Maybe all those fairies on the treetops can make their dream come true.