Wild Christmas Trees – A Really Wild Christmas Activity

Writen by Claire Roulston

In the bleak midwinter, imagine traipsing down a forest trail on a cold wet day, or perhaps even in the snow, and coming face-to-face with a beautifully decorated tree! This is a “Wild Christmas Tree”.

The tradition seems to have started in North America but has been adopted over here in recent years by Instagram influencers and travel bloggers. It’s eye-catching, and as Christmas approaches, you’ll probably see wild Christmas tree images on your social media feeds, but this practice does have a dark side. The decorations are not usually biodegradable, and few people come back later to remove them once Christmas has come and gone. Plastics can take over 400 years to degrade, and glass will survive as fragments over geological timescales, so these are not materials that we should be leaving as litter in the wild. Even if you fully intend to return in January to remove the baubles, please don’t use these materials to decorate a tree.

How to Make a #LeaveNoTrace Tree

There are two main reasons why it’s not desirable to use glass and/or plastic. Firstly, this year, local travel advice is constantly changing, and your decorated tree may become off-limits, leaving the baubles to become litter. Secondly, the bright shiny baubles are always going to be eye-catching to wildlife. Small birds are desperately seeking food at this time of year, so they may use up precious energy reserves exploring your decorations in the hope of finding a new food source, when in fact there’s nothing there for them. However, there is an easy way you can help the local wildlife and still brighten up the trail for any walkers this holiday season, simply dress a tree using only edible and biodegradable decorations!

Biodegradable decorations made from apples, birdseed, wood and wool-felt.

Decoration Suggestions

It’s so simple to select wildlife friendly decorations. You can make your own or buy readymade. Hang them on biodegradable jute or hemp cord or barley straw (available from most garden centres and many online retailers) and for the decorations themselves you can use:

· small apples (core them for easy hanging)

· dried fruit (dried apple slices are eye-catching and easy to hang, avoid raisins as these are toxic to dogs and foxes)

· carrots

· popcorn chains and balls (thread popcorn on short pieces of cord, or make into balls by sticking together with syrup)

· fatballs and/or seedballs (make your own or buy readymade from garden centres and supermarkets – if they have a plastic hook or netting remove this first)

· coconut halves

· millet sprays

· Scottish shortbread biscuits (these are strongly recommended, decorating a tree is hungry work and you may find you need to test the quality of your tree decorations).

· Finally, not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s good to include a protein source such as dried mealworms or dried sprats (available from garden centres and pet shops). Leave a handful on the ground or on a rock or stump near your tree.

These all make simple, attractive, and energy-rich tree decorations that should last for several days or weeks on an outdoor tree until they are consumed by the birds. You can add in a few “real” decorations but make sure to select wooden, straw, or woollen felt objects that are fully biodegradable.

A Few Handy Tips to Help You Decorate

A few pointers to help in your tree decorating:

· Be sure to decorate trees on land where you have right of access. If in doubt check with the landowner or ask locally. Keep away from areas with livestock, wild birds can eat most foodstuffs, but you don’t want to cause stomach upsets to cattle or sheep.

· Decorate easily accessible trail-side trees; don’t put yourself or future visitors at risk.

· Have all your cords tied on your decorations before you leave home, it takes a lot longer than you’d expect to tie cords on each decoration, especially if it starts snowing as you are dressing your tree.

· Try to avoid citrus peel, few birds enjoy eating it, and it takes months to biodegrade.

· If making seed decorations buy “no mess” hulled seed, or microwave or heat your seed mix first to stop germination, otherwise next summer you’ll find a non-native sunflower meadow around your tree.

· Salted or flavoured peanuts are not good for wildlife, buy unsalted or ones sold for pet food.

· Think about how small birds can access the food. Tie on branches where there is another nearby branch that can be used as a perch.

· All members of your tree decorating party should be encouraged to wear Christmassy clothing (for example Santa hats or Christmas jumpers), if anyone else sees you in the act of tree decorating, you are far more likely to gain their approval if you are dressed for the occasion.

· If you enjoy Christmas music take a phone/mp3 player and speakers to play music while you work (assuming you are far enough away from houses and gardens not to have the neighbours round to see what’s causing the noise!).

· If using lights, remove them after you’ve taken your photographs, LED light chains are definitely not biodegradable, and the light pollution may disturb nocturnal wildlife.

· Take LOTS of photographs. You can use the images for personalised Christmas cards for next year, and they make great social media posts.

Something For Everyone

This an easy activity that walkers, families, and dog walkers can all participate in. Even if you are sheltering at home you can join in with a small tree or wreath on an outside window ledge, balcony, or garden. If you are crafty then you can make your decorations, or you can buy some apples and shortbread. Please follow the #leavenotrace philosophy, and if you can, make a return in January to remove any uneaten leftovers. 

You’ll most likely find not a scrap of food remaining, midwinter is a bleak season for small birds, and they will have used up the food resource. So spread a little Christmas cheer and start your own Wild Christmas Tree tradition this year. Remember, if you post on social media, you can tag your posts #hiddenscotland and share them with us. Looking forward to seeing your photographs. Stay safe and Merry Christmas!

Written by Claire Roulston

Claire was born and has lived her whole life in Scotland. She is a beachcomber, sailor, scientist, photographer, and dog mom to Sally the Samoyed. She briefly worked as a zookeeper, before gaining a degree in Biology followed by a PhD in Immunology. She walked out of a biotech job to retrain as a photographer, but then along came Covid-19. She’s available to discuss and tutor science subjects at primary school to university level, but you’ll mostly find her hanging out with her dog. And yes, the dog has her own Instagram @scotlandwithfluffywolf, and recently a website www.scotlandwithfluffywolf.com, feel free to drop by and say hello.