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Tree Improvement – Time For A National Strategy!

The tree improvement charity Future Trees Trust are working with Confor, the Forestry Commission and Forest Research to develop a National Tree Improvement Strategy (NTIS) for the whole UK forestry sector. As Forestry Commission’s funding for tree improvement – conifer and broadleaf – is likely to diminish in the next five years, the consortium is creating a network of stakeholders involved or interested in tree improvement (nurseries, foresters, scientists, researchers, landowners, saw-millers, ecologists) to develop a national strategy and action plan for all tree-breeding.

Confor - Promoting Forestry And Wood - NTIS         Forestry Commission Scotland - NTIS       Future Trees Trust - NTIS

The aim, vision and aspiration of the NTIS is: ‘Through selection and breeding of a wide range of tree species capable of thriving in U.K. conditions – broadleaves and conifers, native and exotic – to promote economic value, genetic diversity, and species resilience to produce trees with good vigour and timber quality, showing resistance to known pests and diseases, and able to withstand the seasonal and longer-term climatic variations, whilst ensuring all improved planting material is available to all interested parties.’

By engaging the whole sector from the start, securing their views, opinions and suggestions, an inclusive strategy will be created that everyone can sign up to and support. By creating collaborative partnerships between stakeholders under the banner of the NTIS, significant new funding for tree-breeding research can be secured from organisations that don’t currently support tree-breeding projects (Research Councils, international funders, corporate supporters, etc.).

Sounds interesting but is tree Improvement important?

The UK is the third largest importer of timber in the world and also one of the least wooded countries in Europe. Expanding our trees and forests and using more timber products are key to addressing and mitigating climate change. By the 2050s forests could be delivering a 10% annual abatement of UK greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to achieve that on a finite area of land, with a changing climate and an expanding range of new pests and diseases, we need to invest in tree breeding and improvement to ensure future resilience and the continuation of a thriving and profitable forestry sector. Just now, between Forest Research, Future Trees Trust, the Conifer Co-op, and Chalara-resistance funding from DEFRA, there is approximately £1million spent annually on tree breeding in the UK. This is for an industry worth nationwide well in excess of £1billion per year.

Breeding of Sitka spruce, Britain’s most commercially important conifer species, has resulted in estimations of around 25% extra volume and even greater increases in the amount of quality green logs by the age of clear felling. Cost:benefit studies elsewhere have shown that for every £1 spent on breeding Sitka spruce there is a £200 return net of inflation; the equivalent figure for oak is still a worthwhile £8. These returns are based solely on timber values; an increase in the value of carbon could increase returns further. In comparison to agriculture, which has been breeding plants for food over thousands of years, the current gains in yield and quality in trees over the last century have been modest. If we are to sustain forestry growth and realise the full potential benefits for society and the wider forestry sector, we need to invest more, as a sector, into this important area of research.

The evidence indicates that more research into tree breeding translates into considerably improved returns. The converse is also true; failure to invest in tree breeding may have a negative effect and result in our forests becoming less diverse, less productive, and more vulnerable to adverse biotic and abiotic change. We cannot afford to stand still.

So what do we need to do?

The time is right to combine forces across all interested parties (the public and private sectors, charities, seed merchants, nursery and forest managers, wood processors, academics and others) to look at the whole of UK tree improvement in a more holistic and strategic way and to move forward in an integrated, collegiate manner. Together, all these stakeholders will help us to shape the NTIS.

So what issues will the NTIS explore?

Following extensive stakeholder engagement the key areas that have been identified for development under the NTIS are:

  • Research:  Identifying research required
  • Governance: Determining how the work will be managed and by whom
  • Funding: Identifying and engaging potential funding sources
  • Intellectual Property: Ensuring material and knowledge is shared equitably
  • Communication: Engagement and awareness raising

The consortium needs your views, suggestions, opinions and thoughts and would like to see what tree improvement means to you and your business, and how you think it ought to develop in the future.

To find out more about how you can become involved and to offer your feedback, please contact Tim Rowland at Future Trees Trust – by Friday 3rd March.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute of Chartered Foresters. In this blog, Tim Rowland discusses a new National Tree Improvements Strategy (NTIS) and asks for your opinions and thoughts on what tree improvement means to you and your business.

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