Young forest plants need protecting against damage and as a result it’s often hard to miss the colourful plastic tree guard sleeves when out walking in German forests. However, these tree guard sleeves are neither pleasing to the eye nor sustainable, because they often end up discarded on the forest floor after they split as the tree grows. Bernd Schairer UG from Albstadt has developed sapling protectors made of wood that contain no plastics, metals or chemicals, do not require removal and disposal, and are produced in a socially responsible, exemplary way.
Bernd Schairer is a carpenter, forester, forestry technician and founder of a company that bears his name in the city of Albstadt on the Swabian Alb. Many years ago, he had an idea about how to stop forest floors becoming covered with layers of plastic and metal tree guards: "In the course of my professional career, when I was busy with colleagues clearing the forest and the plants that remained of the damage caused by hurricane Lothar, I suddenly realised what plastic and metal sapling protectors in the form of sleeves, lattices and spikes actually do to the forest. Many of these had grown into the plants, so they were unable to develop properly. All this left a deep impression on me."
It has long been common practice in Germany to protect trees in the forests - whose 11 million hectares cover a third of Germany’s total land area - with plastic sleeves and lattices. They are needed to protect young plants from damage caused by deer browsing and rubbing on trees, and are one of the main reasons for the clearly detectable quantities of microplastics in forests nowadays.
"This is something that could be prevented," Schairer finds. "The plastic guards are a good thing in themselves - but only if they are removed at the right time and disposed of properly." However, this is often not the case and is understandable given the lack of funding for forestry, which means that there is often no personnel available to undertake the work. "The removal of plastic guards is a costly business," the expert explains. "The sleeves and lattices are often ingrown and difficult to remove. It goes without saying that the waste should not simply be left lying around either, but rather disposed of properly, or returned to the cycle through recycling. Unfortunately, this often doesn't happen either."
Schairer's idea, which arose from his daily work with forest plants, remained no more than an idea for a long time. Until, that is, in 2016 when he once again came into contact with the plastic products. ForstBW, the largest forestry company in Baden-Württemberg at the time, had had several hundred thousand plastic protectors delivered. "When you see all these protectors piled up, it makes you wonder. And I was convinced something had to be done," Schairer reports. "I had also been travelling abroad a lot to buy robinia poles for fastening plants, among other things. Robinia, or black locust, is the most durable European hardwood tree. But the places where it is grown are on average a thousand kilometres away from Germany. With projects like this, we're just shifting our problem abroad - a regional solution was needed."
So, in the same year, the forester founded Bernd Schairer UG in Albstadt and began manufacturing sapling protectors from native hardwood. Shortly afterwards, the recently developed product was awarded the silver medal at the iNEA inventors' fair in Nuremberg. Since 2019, the company has been working with Lebenshilfe Zollernalb, where the sapling protectors are assembled. A patent was also filed and granted in 2020. The latest award for Schairer's idea was the Bioeconomy Innovation Prize Baden-Württemberg 2021, recently presented to him by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Food, Rural Areas and Consumer Protection at the 6th Bioeconomy Day.
The wood for protecting the young plants comes from ash or sweet chestnut trees. As a matter of principle, the company buys this raw material regionally to ensure that transport distances are as short as possible. "Our sweet chestnut wood comes from the largest German growing area, the Upper Rhine Plain. Until two years ago, we sourced the ash wood from the Swabian Alb. But demand has grown so much that we now also work with a company that processes ash wood and provides us with the wood it does not need. This is a good solution, because the leftovers are normally thermally recycled and have no material use," says the entrepreneur. "Whereas in 2020 we were producing around 80,000 units, in 2021 we have already produced 200,000 units."
The chestnut wood - about 750 solid cubic metres a year - is purchased by the company as logs in the forest, which are then cut and delivered. The ash wood is picked up once a week, depending on how much unwanted wood accumulates. The wood is first stored on the company's premises before being taken in dry form to Lebenshilfe Zollernalb, where the sapling protectors are assembled and packaged. Distribution is handled by Stingel Forst- und Handels GmbH in Albstadt, where Schairer has been working as operations manager since 2012. Based on his experience so far, Schairer is convinced that working with Lebenshilfe is a positive thing. Lebenshilfe employs about 35 people, the process runs smoothly, and the product is not subject to the same stringent quality tests that would be required for industrial use.
Bernd Schairer UG already has three different models in production of differing lengths and number of crossbars. Two further models have also been developed. "But we currently have too much to do," says Schairer, expressing his feeling that the company has reached its limits. "We will definitely not expand our production capacities in the Zollernalbkreis area; it has always been our intention to limit our operations to the Albstadt area." Therefore, customers in areas other than Albstadt – i.e., Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and Luxembourg - will be supplied from the company’s Saarbrücken site. This helps Schairer keep transport distances between the sapling protectors and the customers short.
The wooden sapling protectors are about one and a half times more expensive than their plastic counterparts. However, any cost calculation should take into account that they do not need to be dismantled, so there are no costs for this work. "Unless the plants grow very quickly, for example, in a humid environment in which case it’s possible to re-use the protects once or even twice," Schairer reports. "Unlike plastic covers, they are very easy to dismantle. Our sapling protectors can be taken apart quickly and easily with normal work gloves. "This is because the protectors arose from our daily work with forest plants. However, special gloves are required for dismantling plastic covers and you still often hurt yourself because the covers are sometimes so tightly ingrown." He adds, "But unfortunately, the problem with our forestry industry is that it only thinks one financial year at a time: if it's cheap this year, why should I care about next year?"
But he emphasises once again: "The plastic tree guards themselves are top-notch. The damage they do to the forest is solely down to user error because the guards are not removed at the right time. But it’s hard to say how the market will ultimately develop."
Some of the new models being launched over the coming months will be made with a new material – oak wood. Schairer has already held talks with a company in Germany’s Spessart region, where this natural product is a waste product from parquet production and has not yet been used as a material. Another cooperation with Lebenshilfe Saarbrücken also looks feasible. In this case, however, only the wood would be supplied; any further involvement would exceed Schairer’s capacities as a small company. As mentioned above, customers in Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate and Luxembourg will be supplied from the Saarbrücken site to keep travel distances between sapling protectors and customers short.