Christmas tree spraying
Nati Harnik  /  AP
Kirby Baird of the University of Nebraska landscape services department in Lincoln, Neb., sprays a tree with fox urine in an effort to deter tree thieves who might chop it down and use it as a Christmas tree.
updated 12/12/2006 1:13:06 PM ET 2006-12-12T18:13:06

While many Christmas trees sparkle with tinsel and lights during the holiday season, some reek of fox urine or wear a splatter of pink stain.

A surge in Christmas tree poaching has forced growers and property owners to take action. Smelly, discolored trees are less likely to be cut and dragged off by thieves, they say.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, evergreens are sprayed with a fox urine mixture and tagged with a warning to discourage tree thieves.

"It is a strong odor, and it smells just like what it is," said Kirby Baird, a landscape manager at the school.

When the tree is out in the cold, the smell isn't noticeable, Baird said. But once the tree is inside and starts to warm up ...

"It's nasty," he said.

Live Christmas trees have made a resurgence with consumers in the past three years, said Rick Dungey of the National Christmas Tree Association. While no one tracks the number of thefts, some believe the increased demand has fueled pine pilfering.

Tree poaching once was a problem at Washington State University, which has more than 150 evergreen, spruce and fir trees on campus.

"We did have a lot of trees cut for Christmas trees, either entire small trees or tops of large trees," said grounds supervisor Kappy Brun.

The poaching all but stopped after groundskeepers began to spray campus trees with the oily, odorous liquid produced by skunks.

While Nebraska and Washington fought tree poachers with odor, Cornell University made their trees less appealing as Christmas decorations.

Workers there painted trees with "ugly mix" — a solution of hydrated lime and red food coloring developed by one of Cornell's veteran gardeners. The result: fluorescent pink trees. The mix stays on trees for about a month before fading, and is credited with saving dozens of evergreens over the years.

"Ugly mix" received widespread publicity and eventually was used by New York's Department of Transportation.

"I have gotten calls from Christmas tree growers and from more homeowners and landscapers, and they want to know what do we do," said Donna Levy, plant health care coordinator at Cornell Plantation, who said the university isn't recommending the mix, just sharing its strategy.

Cornell isn't using the pink goop this year because it sometimes is slow to fade.

"We thought we would go a year and see what happens," Levy said.

Dave Velozo, who owns a nursery near Harrisburg, Pa., recently lost a rare blue Sierra redwood to a tree poacher.

A jagged three-foot stump is all that remains of a 13-foot tree, which Velozo said he had nurtured for the past 15 years.

"Somebody must have seen it over the years and decided, 'Hey, this will look good in my trailer,'" he said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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