Farming feature: Nice and Ezee does it with Natalie Davies’ tree guards
Entrepreneur Natalie Davies of Colchester makes products from paper pulp, including tree guards and paint trays. SARAH CHAMBERS found out how her products are helping make tree planting schemes better for wildlife
Walk through a newly-planted forest, says Natalie Davies, and it will be littered with plastic.
Young trees and hedges need protection from rabbits, deer, sheep and other grazing animals, and the standard response to these threats has been to surround them with a hard and not-very-natural product. It breaks down eventually, but the shards litter the ground and may potentially be problematic for wild and domesticated animals.
Having already launched a paint tray made from recycled card and paper that doesn’t break down on contact with water, but slowly biodegrades over time, she decided to turn her attention to the great outdoors.
The response to her invention - a tree guard made from paper pulp - has been “phenomenal”,
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“We went to Confor Woodland Show in September and the response from that has been overwhelming because everyone is fed up with plastic,” she says.
Natalie, aged 30, who lives in Colchester and is married to Warren, a barrister in the British Army, hopes to revolutionise our efforts to make the world greener by ensuring that the guards that protect our growing trees are biodegradable.
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She is already enjoying a degree of success with her Ezee Tree Guard. It scooped a Soil Association Innovation Award and is being used by the Forestry Commission, councils and large estates all over the country.
The inspiration for her tree guard was her parents, Andy and Linda Barnwell, who were planting trees on their land in Northamptonshire.
“My parents, who are also Country Land and Business Association (CLA) members, were planting a load of trees on their land and we went to the nursery and ordered them, and they asked what animals we had.
“We have a big issue on the estate with rabbits and hares, and muntjac, so they said you need to protect the trees and you’ll need some plastic guards. And we were planting and thinking: ‘This is really weird. We are planting trees and wrapping them in plastic.’
“It just seemed bizarre to us as well because we had to use stakes, which is just chopping down a tree to plant a tree. So my dad said to me: ‘Do you think you can make this out of paper pulp?’
“We did a considerable amount of research, speaking to foresters, arboriculturalists, and others to come up with a design, and then we got them made and trialled them for four years.
“We planted 3600 trees in various locations on my parents’ land: on the top of a really exposed hill 600ft above sea level, down into hedgerows, on a river bank, and in a covered, forest area. And we had an amazing success rate, with only one to two per cent failure rate on our trees, and a 90% success rate with the guards over that time.
“We did a launch at the trial site in July 2013 and met with the Tree Council’s Director General because it’s a sustainable product. They loved it and were really keen, and now, for every guard sold, we donate a penny to the Tree Council.”
Since the Confor Woodland Show at Longleat in September, everything has gone “a bit mad”, she says.
Before embarking on tree guards, Natalie had already created a range of Eco Ezee sustainable decorating products, now stocked by Travis Perkins in 600 stores nationwide, and also manufactured shoe boxes from paper pulp for Marks & Spencer.
All these are made in China and she will go out once or twice a year to meet with the manufacturer.
The secret to the success of the product is an additive which stops it breaking down too quickly. Trees take two or three year to establish, and the guards start to break down around the fourth year, she explains. She uses bamboo canes as a support, rather than timber stakes.
“We have even had Charlie Craven, the estate manager for Prince Charles, visit and he is very keen on them,” she says. “You don’t have to take these off the tree, they just decompose. They start getting shorter and shorter, and then, eventually, disappear. And we use bamboo canes, which is one of the most sustainable woods you can use.”
All the products are made in China, and her dream now would be to bring the manufacturing process to the UK - although to achieve that it must achieve a critical mass.
Natalie was an A student at school, but was always more interested in business than academia.
“I didn’t want to go to university but was persuaded because I got A grades. I have always wanted to set up my own business. I got six offers and went to Bath because it was the best university for business,” she says.
It was a sandwich course and she was inspired by her experience in industry, working for Tesco in Hungary and the AA, and decided to drop out. She worked for a car maker, and a lingerie manufacturer, but her ambition was to run her own business.
She set up Eco Ezee in 2008, starting with her paint tray and moving on to other decorating sundries.
“This coincided with a time when I thought I wanted to run my own business, I just wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, but it was just finding the right idea,” she says. “It came to mind that everyone hates washing up paint trays, so the idea was initially a disposable paint tray made from pulp, basically moulded fibre. I designed something, found a factory on Ali Baba, flew out to China, and got it made. And that was the start of it.” She took her prototype and her ideas to builders merchants Travis Perkins. They got behind it and stocked it in 15 of its stores in London – and then asked if she could develop another set of decorating sundries that are sustainable. Natalie now supplies the company with sustainable paint trays, brushes, roller frames and covers, and paint kettles. They are stocked in 70 stores mainly in the south east, but, following a range review in 2013 they are set to be seen in 600 stores across the country.
Her father, a former pilot who flew Concorde on occasion, joined the business a year and a half after its launch and her mother, a year after that.
“I’m MD and they are both directors,” she says.
“We design them ourselves. My dad is very, very good at design. I have got more manufacturing knowledge than him because I go to the factories in China.
“We would like to bring the tree guards here because a third of our cost is shipping because it’s quite large so we would really like to manufacture in the UK so we can then use UK waste.
“We ship a lot of our waste from the UK to China because there’s a market for it there. We could buy the material for a sixth of the price in the UK.
“At the moment it’s six to eight weeks on the sea.
“There are lots of benefits and we would like to make it very sustainable.
“That all brings down your costs. It’s just a matter of getting the sales up then we can look to do it.”
Natalie’s golden rule has been to make a product which can retail at the same price or less than the plastic competition.
“If we can’t make it for the same price or less we don’t develop it,” she says.
Natalie and her parents are working “flat-out” on the business, ordering, importing, unloading containers and doing exhibitions.
“It’s busy, but I like being busy,” she says.