Across Canada there are some sixty million Christmas trees being farmed and each year between five and six million are harvested.  Most are brought home to be adorned but many go unsold before Christmas.  With the exception of trees with healthy root balls, Christmas trees cannot be replanted and within weeks of being cut down they will expire.  For many decades, expired Christmas trees served little purpose in nature and were fated to waste away amongst synthetic materials in overcrowded municipal landfills.  Over the years, North Americans have become more cognizant of how we dispose of biodegradable materials including the disposal of Christmas trees.  Today in the Halton watershed, municipalities offer programs to divert Christmas trees from landfills.  Most recycled trees are collected and chipped for mulch or compost, and then there are some trees that are upcycled for habitat restoration projects.

Restoration using upcycled Christmas trees

Christmas trees are biodegradable, lightweight, and durable.  These qualities make them prime material for excellent wildlife habitat restoration material.  In addition to these attributes they have intricate branching and needles that are proven effective as sediment traps for streambank rehabilitation.  Overly wide creeks can be narrowed by staking trees directly into the streambank.

Widened section of a creek is staked with upcycled trees

The tree branches and needles deflect fast flowing water from eroding the edges of the banks and slow the water velocity limiting the amount of sediment it can suspend.  As a result, sediment is deposited and accumulates throughout the branches to form new banks.  This process further improves the stream by narrowing the stream, increasing flow rates, enhancing water clarity, and regulating temperature.  In as little as one year newly formed banks are strong enough to support weight and can be planted to facilitate regeneration of the creek buffer.

Another important restoration purpose these trees provide is that they are exceptional fish habitat.  In ponds and lakes of all sizes tree brush offers shade and refuge to small fish such as bass, crappie, and bluegill.  Rotting trees contribute to organic matter and nutrients in the water column.  These materials are beneficial to aquatic plants and insects, both of which are primary foods for many fish species.  Tree brush is also used to alter spawning area flows and improves nursery habitat by providing nest protection from predators .

A deflector made of Christmas trees, stakes and twine on Mountsberg Creek

Likewise, Christmas trees can be used to improve habitat on land as they provide valuable refuge for birds and small mammals.  A heap of dead Christmas trees in a field can act as a sanctuary for insects and rodents and provide a reliable source of forage for birds.  If placed in a forest the decomposing trunks will become food for forest detritivores and cover for salamanders.  Over time the tree will break down and replenish elements such as carbon and nitrogen back to the forest soils.  Christmas trees have also been effective in preventing rain and wind erosion on exposed sandy soils along shorelines.  Many restoration projects along the east and west coast have saved or recuperated coastline with the help of recycled trees.  Furthermore they have been used to alleviate slumping on slopes that have been degraded.

Recent and ongoing restoration projects in Halton

At Conservation Halton we have used Christmas trees as a restoration tool for the past five years.  So far we have been involved in six projects that have benefited from upcycled trees.  These projects include streambank restoration along privately owned sections of Bronte Creek and its tributaries as well as a large scale multi-year collaboration at Lowville Park.  In total more than 120 meters of Bronte Creek’s habitat has been revitalized with indirect benefits stretching downstream.

Trout Unlimited Canada’s Ted Knott Chapter is a volunteer group that has a successful track record when it comes to creek restoration in the Hamilton-Halton-Haldimand area.  Since 2011, Conservation Halton has partnered with them to restore degraded sections of Bronte Creek at Lowville Park where Christmas trees were used as deflectors and for sediment traps.

Trout Unlimited Canada volunteers use Christmas trees along the banks of Bronte Creek at Lowville Park

Jack Imhof, National Biologist at Trout Unlimited Canada works with crews improve fish habitat in Emmerson Creek

Last year, they used 120 trees in Emmerson creek to increase flow rates, and to create much needed meanders in the small creek.  Ted Knott Chapter President Bill Christmas boasts “[Christmas trees] are much easier and faster to install than moving logs and stones.”  In his experience they last up to two years before needing replacements.  At that point, the volunteers simply leave the old trees in place and add new ones to increase the active bank.  The chapter keeps a stockpile of trees from year to year and are expecting to increase their current stock to 200 for this year’s projects.

Conservation Halton staff have been busy restoring habitat on our own conservation lands.  From 2014-2016 the use of old Christmas trees helped to improve fish habitat at Kelso Quarry Park, a parcel of land owned and managed by Conservation Halton.  The lake was in need of fish refuge and an increase of organic matter and nutrients.  Last winter Conservation Halton’s restoration team received hundreds of trees donated from the community to aid in their efforts.  With help from local volunteers and partner groups the trees were stuffed in weighted structures and sunk to the bottom of the lake.

Volunteers create fish habitat structures to place in Kelso Quarry Lake

These structures now act as habitat to foster fish populations and add nutrients to the water while the quarry transitions to a resilient lake.

Since 2000, Royal Botanical Gardens have been using recycled Christmas trees to rebuild creek channels and create fish barriers to combat invasive carp at the mouth of Grindstone Creek.  Eurasian Common carp (Cyprinus carpio) have been prevalent in Hamilton Harbour since the 1930’s and their aggressive feeding on aquatic plants has changed the ecology of the wetland resulting in the destruction of marsh channels.  RBG staff have found old Christmas trees to be “an ideal building block” in the creation of berms in areas where the water levels fluctuate.  They pack the trees tightly together to block the carp from entering the marsh.  In the meanwhile, the berms allow for the regeneration of aquatic plants, which create suitable habitat for the native fish.  With time the trees supporting the berm breakdown and each year staff must add new trees to maintain berm heights that will protect the floodplain ponds during high water levels.  RBG usually receives between 1500 and 2000 trees a year, most of which are donated from local businesses and box stores.

Christmas tree berms along Grindstone Creek at RBG block invasive Common carp from re-entering the marsh

Conservation Halton does not accept general donations of Christmas trees for our projects because we have sources donation from local businesses and communities.  If you would like your tree to become part of a restoration project, you can drop your tree off (with no decorations) to the RBG at the Laking Garden off of Spring Gardens Rd.

Christmas tree dependent projects in the works

There are still many sections of creek in Conservation Halton’s watersheds that are overwidened or eroding and would benefit from strategically placed Christmas trees.  Thanks to a generous donation of Christmas trees from Ikea Burlington, Conservation Halton will be installing over 200 trees at up to four creek locations in 2017.

One of the ongoing Christmas tree projects is located in the community of Carlisle at the City of Hamilton’s own Courtcliffe Park.  Narrowing Bronte Creek in the park is a component of a large scale restoration project that is currently underway in the park.  Over the past two years restoration staff have been working with Trout Unlimited Canada to strategically place seven sediment traps along degraded section of the creek.  Thus far Conservation Halton has received support during intensive workdays from students of Niagara College’s Ecosystem Restoration program, members of Scouts Canada and visiting scouts from Scotland, and members of the Ted Knott Chapter.  An additional four traps are scheduled for placement in the spring of 2017.  This year the City of Hamilton diverted up to 300 Christmas trees from Carlisle residents to Courtcliffe Park.  For more details visit the Courtcliffe Park Restoration page on our website.

Conservation Halton’s restoration team has also identified an opportunity to improve creek banks on sections of Sixteen Mile Creek at Drumquin Park.  In the past the creek was straightened and widened significantly in the 1970’s, which resulted in poor fish habitat.  An estimated 150 Christmas trees could be needed to strengthen banks which will help reduce erosion by narrowing the creek and improving flow.  This will enhance overall creek health and create a more suitable environment for its inhabitants.

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Last modified: August 14, 2017

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