Twenty-one years ago, few would have clocked native woodland planting as a major growth area. But when its hundred-millionth tree was planted on a Highland estate last year, Alba Trees could congratulate itself on its foresight.
Managing director Rodney Shearer was a company founder in the late 1980s. "We wanted to specialise in native material of known provenance, with full traceability," he recalls. "When the Forestry Commission only wanted Sitka, it was easy for growers. But we have had to be a bit smarter."
Sales director James Hepburne Scott adds: "Attention to detail here is enormous. It's a very diverse market, from Highlands to highways, and we grow for other nurseries. New forestry planting has died away. It has never been harder to anticipate where the demand will be. The big imponderable is grant support in each of the UK regions."
The EU recently told applicants to the European Woodland Grant Scheme to go ahead with planting without waiting for final approval from Brussels. "There is a backlog of planting that can now get underway," says Hepburne Scott. "Beyond that, there is strong political backing for woodland creation because of climate change."
Shearer steered the purchase and construction of the purpose-built 7ha nursery, which includes 14 polytunnels, on a greenfield site east of Edinburgh. "East Lothian gave us a balance," he says. "It's near the main forestry areas but far enough south for a decent growing season."
Alba now employs 32 staff and up to 20 contractors. "We are a major rural employer here and aim to provide year-round jobs," says Shearer. From the start, the firm has offered customers full traceability on its stock, thanks to a bar-code stock control system created by development director Barry Sutton. This allows sales staff to instantly check stock availability on screen.
Seed is harvested from wild populations in UK forestry zones. "Generally, woods are owned by private landowners, who are paid a fee," explains Hepburne Scott, who chairs the Forestry and Timber Association for Scotland. Some stock is started in polytunnels, but all is finished outdoors in pens. "Nothing goes out to the customer straight from the polytunnel," he points out.
All plants are grown in Canadian-designed root trainer cells held above the ground on specially made steel frames, ensuring that "air pruning" keeps roots dense and compact. They are grown in a peat-reduced medium. Peat-free plants are grown to order.
A member of the Buccleuch Group, Alba now claims to be the UK's largest producer of cell-grown plants, selling between six and seven million a year — including shrubs, reeds and wild flowers as well as trees. But forestry continues to account for 90 per cent of its business, including providing mother stock for Sitka spruce growers.
The firm's market extends across the UK. "Even north west France is a good new area for us," adds Hepburne Scott. Indeed, its website has welcomes in French, German, Spanish and Italian. Customers include voluntary sector bodies, large landscape contractors and private estates such as Gairloch in the Highlands, where Alba's hundred-millionth tree was planted last year.
This diversity has been key to the firm's success. "If you look at the graph of forestry planting, it's been on a steady downward curve — from 23,000ha a year when we started to 5,000ha a year now," says Hepburne Scott. "A lot of tree nurseries have gone out of business in that time, yet we have kept growing by staying one step ahead of the market."
New power generation
In a new departure for the company, Alba Trees has concluded a contract to grow 500,000 fast-growing Eucalyptus nitidus for biomass supplier Silvigen.
"This is the first big commercial crop we've done but will become the second biggest crop we do by number," says sales director James Hepburne Scott. "Silvigen supplies Drax Power Station and three more wood-burning plants are planned."
Unlike the more familiar willow coppices, E. nitidus is grown as a single-stemmed tree, harvested in its entirety after seven years. Hepburne Scott explains: "The wood is denser and you have a higher proportion of stem fibre to bark, so the calorific value is higher."