19 December 2018

Snakes alive, but so is the Christmas spirit in Wolumla

| Elka Wood
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Colourful colorbond trees mark the entrance to the Court’s tree farm, and are visible from the highway. Photo’s: Provided by Deb Court.

A Wolumla Christmas tree farm has had a surprising bout of fame this season after owner Deb Court appeared in national and international news stories earlier this month under the headlines: “Christmas tree farm overrun by snakes,” and “family tree farm stormed by snakes.”

Court has had a few brushes with snakes on her property lately – and even a dry bite by a brown snake – and says she has seen no fewer than 12 brown snakes in the last year, a fact which caused her to put up signs warning her customers to wear closed-toe shoes and proceed with caution.

The signs made their way around social media last week and Court found herself in a brief but intense media storm.

The northern hemisphere chortled – snakes? At Christmas? The lengths those crazy Aussies will go to for a Christmas tree!

A brown snake on Court’s Wolumla property.

“I worked as a wedding photographer in Melbourne before I came up here,” Court says calmly after helping a customer load a tree on December 10 “so this [snakes, media] is pretty manageable.”

Although temperatures are in the high 30’s, Court wears a pair of purple gumboots and long pants while she’s working and encourages customers to come and choose a tree in the early morning before snakes are active.

Despite the media storm, Court reports no drop in sales and says she has three generations of loyal customers who take the possibility of snakes in their stride.

Court moved to Wolumla from Melbourne to run the family farm after her dad, Bob, passed away in 2016, and her goal now is to try to cheer up her grieving mum, which she has done by throwing herself into the tree business, even setting up five full-sized decorated Christmas trees on her veranda last year.

Deb Court runs the family Christmas tree farm after her dad, Bob, passed away in 2016.

“The first year was very hard, after dad passed away,” Court says “but now we try to have a bit of fun with it. I think Dad would be rapt that we’ve kept the farm going.”

Still, Court admits she has not spent as much time amongst the trees this year after seeing so many brown snakes.

“We usually prune the trees four or five times through the year, to get that classic shape” Court explains “they are looking a bit fuller this year because I haven’t wanted to go up on the hill as much.”

The tree farm, which backs onto a national forest, may unwittingly be the perfect habitat for brown snakes, according to Shoalhaven snake catcher Shaun Armstrong.

“Low vegetation like hedges [or Radiata pines, the kind Court grows] provide snakes with the perfect place to bask while concealed from predators,” Armstrong says. He recommends keeping the lowest limbs trimmed high to make a less attractive habitat for snakes.

Although numerous options abound for Christmas trees – plastic, no tree, native tree – Court says that people love the process of choosing a living tree, sometimes taking hours.

These bushy trees may inadvertently provide a perfect habitat for snakes.

“When I take people up on the hill to choose their tree,” she says “you feel the energy of the bush and you see it in the kid’s response – the smell of pine is energizing.”

When Court was a child, her family would stop on the side of the road to cut a radiata pine – the same variety she grows now – to use for a Christmas tree.

As cars pull in and heed the now-famous red painted snake warning signs, choosing trees that have been pre-cut by Court in the early morning instead of walking through the trees in the heat of the day, Court says she is really concerned about her customers being bitten by snakes, especially after she picked up a rock near her shed and found a live baby brown snake under it.

Court often cuts trees and stacks them around the old bus at the entrance so people don’t have to walk through the property and risk a snake encounter.

Court has followed protocol and not approached the snakes.

“The minute you start an interaction with a snake is the minute you put yourself in danger,” Armstrong says.

“I thought seriously about whether to open this season, because of how many snakes I was seeing,” Court says “but then, the trees are there, and people want them. It felt a bit Grinch-like to keep them to ourselves.”

If you have a problem snake on your property, please contact a professional snake handler to have it relocated. Stay away from the snake, but watch where it goes from afar. For tips on how to keep your property snake-free, go to http://www.shoalhavensnakecatchers.com.au

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She seems a sensible lady, well done.

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