There is some good news for efforts to protect the UK's trees, as Dr Stephen Cavers of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, explains...

An important milestone has been achieved for the UK’s trees, after work by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the Woodland Trust secured the declaration of 16 tree populations across six species that will be protected for their distinctive genetic diversity.

The newly recognised populations (Genetic Conservation Units, or GCUs) have been added to a Europe-wide database, and will be monitored and managed to ensure that the populations are stable and regenerating. This will give them the best chance of resilience in the face of changing environmental conditions, and ensure the unique diversity they contain is protected into the future.  

The declaration follows the launch in 2019 of the Strategy for the UK’s Forest Genetic Resources (UK FGR) and the establishment, at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, of the UK’s first GCU, for Scots pine. This progress is the result of a collaborative effort by the team that steered the creation of the Strategy (UKCEH, RBG Kew, Forest Research, Future Trees Trust) and The Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodland conservation charity.

Careful selection and groundwork by UKCEH and the Woodland Trust team identified the new GCUs as priority sites with good prospects for maintaining healthy populations of the target trees. The new GCUs will protect diversity in Scots pine, Oaks, Rowan, Silver Birch and Ash.

This will give trees the best chance of resilience in changing environmental conditions and ensure their unique diversity is protected - Dr Stephen Cavers

Genetic diversity is the variation among individuals and populations within a species. It is needed to ensure that tree species can survive and adapt under changing environmental conditions, and are resilient to stresses such as novel pests and diseases. Protecting genetic diversity also maintains a broad set of options for future tree breeding, including the potential to develop traits that are not currently deemed to be important.

At present, this important resource is still poorly understood, undervalued, and threatened by direct and indirect human impacts. Whilst various efforts are under way to address these challenges, progress to date has been patchy, on a relatively small scale and insufficiently joined up in approach. The Strategy for UK FGR aims to create a framework for collaboration to better understand, protect and use the genetic diversity in the UK’s trees. It focuses on both native species and well-established introduced species where important varieties or landraces have been developed in the UK.

Stephen Cavers

Related links

Map of European GCUs

UKFGR website
(UK GCUs will appear on there soon)