National tree improvement strategy

This week a National Tree Improvement Strategy for Britain and Ireland has been launched by the Future Trees Trust.

A proud forester talks about a super sycamore in a UK-registered seed stand
A proud forester talks about a super sycamore in a UK-registered seed stand

Back in 1993 I cut my teeth as a silvologist working for a new co-operative group of organisations, known first as the British Hardwoods Improvement Programme. Soon afterwards researchers and landowners joined from Ireland, and it was renamed BIHIP. First as Research Manager, and later as its Secretary, I planted field trails across Britain and Ireland (read more) supporting a vision which united scientists, foresters, policy makers and landowners — namely that producing valuable hardwoods from our forests would be good for the economy, society and the environment.

National Tree Improvement Strategy
National Tree Improvement Strategy

Fast forward 24 years and earlier this week I attended the launch of the National Tree Improvement Strategy, led by the charity which BIHIP morphed into, the Future Trees Trust. What a fantastic collaborative venture this has become. It is well-supported by government and funding bodies, and the charity’s success attracting investment is very apparent. Not least, this week’s launch of the strategy is a significant milestone. The vision of the strategy is:

“Through selection and breeding of a wide range of tree species capable of thriving in UK conditions — broadleaves and conifers, natives and exotics — we aim to promote economic value, genetic diversity and species resilience, producing trees with good vigour and timber quality, showing resistance to known pests and diseases, and able to withstand the seasonal and long-term climatic variations, whilst ensuring that all selected material is available to all interested parties.”

The strategy describes over the medium term an intention to have productive seed orchards for ‘new alternative’ conifer and broadleaved plus trees. In the longer-term the aim is to use genomic selection aided by DNA markers to promote important economic traits of key species. Alongside the science, the strategy highlights key elements under Governance, Funding, Intellectual Property and Communication.

The one aspect I would have liked to have seen included would have been future casting in relation to timber properties. There is clearly an assumption that tree breeding work will work to support tree health by working alongside entomologists and pathologists. Yet there is no mention about markets for any improved productivity. It is all too easy to assume that aiming for ‘quality’ will support society’s future needs, but what might this quality entail — is it yield, figure, straightness or even lignin content? The super sycamore I visited recently (pictured) has been selected for straightness and vigour, but it may be unlikely that trees like this will feed a furniture market in the future. New markets are emerging for wood fibre, for instance nano-cellulose products to replace plastics, or thermal-modification technologies which transform non-durable timbers into outdoor products. Growing trees is a long-term business; we need to work hard not just on the genetics but be constantly aware of shifting markets and societal demands. Only that way can our forests really help us build a sustainable society.

The National Tree Improvement Strategy is not yet available online but I’m told will soon be available at [UPDATE – now available here]

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