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This research is helping to investigate how community tree nurseries (CTNs) might contribute to satisfying the increasing demand for trees across Britain. Commissioned by Norfolk County Council as part of the Trees Outside Woodland Programme, it is assessing how far different kinds of CTNs can provide quality planting stock, including regionally appropriate species, which is biosecure. Support that could overcome the upscaling and sustainability challenges CTNs face will also be evidenced. The research will also describe the wider benefits CTNs leverage for health, wellbeing and education through engagement with local communities and volunteers.

Research objectives

  • Undertake a rapid evidence review and assess the current state of knowledge about CTNs and the specific successes and challenges associated with different ways of working in different contexts.
  • Conduct case study research and develop a characterisation of CTN models, detailing the range of benefits, costs, challenges, and unique selling points associated with each.
  • Undertake a national survey of CTNs in the UK to provide the first national picture of the number and production potential of new and established CTNs.
  • Assess the impact of support provided to CTNs involved in the Community Tree Nurseries Pilot Scheme funded as part of the Trees Outside Woodland programme, to identify appropriate mechanisms to facilitate the establishment and growth of CTNs.

Findings and Recommendations

Research has revealed the following:

The evidence review assessed 54 studies and documents to show that:

  • The size of the community group involved (i.e. the numbers of people supporting the nursery) and business size (by number of trees produced) impacts success and sustainability.
  • The success of CTNs can rest on support to deal with uncertain incomes derived from local and regional markets for trees which tend to be poorly developed or unstable.
  • CTNs can build markets for their trees, but this may take between 5 and 10 years. Free trees from other government or NGO projects can disrupt CTN development, even where these free tree schemes only last a short period of time.

Case study research with 16 CTNs across the UK, suggested that:

  • It is possible to characterise CTNs both by size (production volumes) and type according to organisation, governance and objectives, namely: Organisation and project-based CTNs; Enterprises; Community-based CTNs; and Networks.
  • Not all CTNs have either the capacity, or the desire to upscale. Upscaling may represent significant business investment and risk, or may simply change the nature of the initiative to one that is not desired by those who manage the CTN.
  • There is a poor level of understanding about biosecurity issues and what that means for CTN production practices.
  • Support that could overcome the upscaling and sustainability challenges CTNs face include:
    • Covering the costs of nursery establishment to offset lack of income and cost management over the first two years,
    • Covering the costs of nursery infrastructure and land,
    • Providing financial and other support to maintaining staff and volunteer numbers and contributions,
    • Providing training – nursery skills, biosecurity, leadership and nursery management,
    • Connecting CTNs and members to a wider community of practice.

A national survey showed that:

  • There are many recently established or establishing CTNs, c. 66% of the sample were 3 years old or less.
  • The most popular source of production is seed collected in the local area. Around 34% of CTNs said >90% of their production came from locally collected seed, of those CTNs c. 24% said they relied on this source for 100% of their production.
  • The average number of trees produced by CTNs was c. 3,500. Although this ranged between 0-60,000. Production across the sample October 2021-March 2022 was around quarter of a million trees (239,428), mostly broadleaved species.
  • Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (E-NGOs) appear as the most important customer across all distribution methods and to all kinds of CTNs. Private individuals are important customers of on-site sales.
  • For the majority of CTNs in the survey the greater part of income, comes from grants, followed by tree sales. No CTNs in the survey reported involvement in secondary markets[1].
  • The majority of CTNs do not have paid staff. The average number of paid staff per CTN across all those in the sample was 1.22 FTE (median 0.2, mode 0, range 0-10).
  • The total number of volunteers contributing to CTNs over the last 12 months was reported as 1,233, with the average number of volunteers per CTN being 18 (median 10, mode 10, range 0-220). Estimated volunteer hours returned a total across all CTNs in the sample of 34,995, an average of 522 hours per CTN p.a. This represents 4,729 working days, or 22.5 FTEs.
  • The survey asked several questions about aspects of CTNs biosecurity policy and practice. Across the survey sample just 10% of CTNs said they had a formal written policy shared with staff and volunteers, although 37% said they had something informal such as a common understanding of principles and practice, overall 45% had no policy or plan.
  • Half or more of the CTNs were able to trace trees from source to sale (54%), and reported conducting regular monitoring for pests and diseases (49%). Around a third or more were checking incoming goods for pests and diseases (39%) and had procedures for cleaning and sterilising items (31%). Just twelve nurseries (c. 18%) had quarantine areas.
  • Importantly, when asked if they had any interest in Plant Healthy certification 43% of CTNs said yes, just 17% no, and 40% responded “maybe”.

[1] A secondary market is one not specific to the actual production of trees, but related to the CTNs nursery endeavour, e.g., selling other horticultural products, running a café, selling training courses.

Latest updates

A journal paper is being prepared, and future work is being discussed.

Our Involvement

FR is leading the social research component of the Boosting Community Tree Nurseries pilot, which is testing how to establish community tree nurseries and their role in increasing the supply of healthy, biosecure and sustainable trees in England.

The pilot is led by Norfolk County Council and is part of the Trees Outside Woodland Programme which is developing innovative and sustainable new ways to increase tree cover to address both climate and ecological emergencies. The £2.5M, three-year programme is funded by HM Government and delivered in partnership by The Tree Council, Natural England, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs with five local councils.


Funding & partners
  • The programme is funded by HM Government
  • The pilot is led by Norfolk County Council
  • Tree Council logoThe programme is being delivered in partnership by The Tree Council
  • The pilot is part of the Trees Outside Woodland Programme