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New initiative from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank to protect UK trees takes root

With new pests and diseases attacking the United Kingdom's native treescape, Kew' Millennium Seed Bank is tackling the threat by establishing the country's first national collection of tree seeds - the UK National Tree Seed Project.
Fraxinus excelsior (European ash) in Germany

The UK is unusual in that it does not have comprehensive and genetically representative ex situ collections of native tree populations for research and use in practical conservation.

Protecting the diversity of the UK’s trees

The Project will ensure that the collection of UK tree seeds already protected in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank will grow and become more comprehensive, eventually representing the full genetic diversity of the UK’s tree populations. These seeds will be available to research organisations working on solutions to the threats facing UK trees, such as the control of pests and diseases. Ultimately, these seed collections can be used for restoring trees to the UK countryside and increasing tree cover. The Forestry Commission is a key partner, providing advice on target species and help with collecting seeds.

Thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, who have provided £100,000 in funding, seeds from the UK’s best loved and most vulnerable trees and shrubs will be collected and protected in long-term storage in the vaults of the Millennium Seed Bank facility at Wakehurst in Sussex. The Millennium Seed Bank already safeguards practically the entire UK flora in its vaults and works to restore native plants and trees to their natural habitats.

In the last ten years we have seen an increasing threat to our trees from many newly arrived, often very aggressive pests and diseases. In 2013 almost all of our favourite tree species, from oak to beech and ash have been affected.

Dr Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank

Dr Paul Smith, Head of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank says, “In the last ten years we have seen an increasing threat to our trees from many newly arrived, often very aggressive pests and diseases. In 2013 almost all of our favourite tree species, from oak to beech and ash are affected.

“Establishing the UK’s first comprehensive national tree seed bank is absolutely crucial. The UK’s tree cover is already amongst the lowest in Europe. Avoiding further degradation of our woodlands, and the wider environmental, economic and social impacts of this, absolutely hinges on conserving the valuable genetic diversity of our trees and shrubs.”

Environment Minister Lord de Mauley says, “Now, more than ever before, it’s vitally important that we protect our native tree species. Improving tree health is one of our top priorities and innovative projects like this, remarkable in their scale and ambition, are exactly what we need.”

Prioritising the most vulnerable trees

A priority list of 50 trees and shrubs will be initially targeted for collection. These species have been selected and ranked according to key criteria such as their conservation ratings, prevalence in the landscape, vulnerability to pests and diseases and their native status. Species targeted in the Project include:

Common juniper (Juniperus communis), including the subspecies Juniperus ssp. hemisphaerica

Designated as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, this evergreen conifer species is quite rare in Britain and is at risk from the fungus-like pathogen Phytophthora austrocedrae.

Fraxinus excelsior (European ash) in Germany
Common ash is under threat from ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea), which first came to the public's attention in spring 2012.

Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris)

This tree is increasingly at risk from pests and diseases including Dothistroma needle blight, pinewood nematode, pine processionary moth and the pine tree lappet moth.

Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

At threat from ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea), which first came to the public’s attention in spring 2012. This fungus kills the leaves and bark tissue, causes shoot death, cankers, crown dieback and ultimately the demise of the entire tree. Ash is also at potential risk from the emerald ash borer beetle. Find out more about common ash.

Common alder (Alnus glutinosa)

This water-loving species, typically found in wet woodlands or alongside streams and rivers, is at risk from the pathogen Phytophthora alni.

Wild cotoneaster (Cotoneaster cambricus)

A rare species with just a handful of wild trees found in one location in northern Wales.

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Vulnerable to Phytophthora kernoviae, an invasive pathogen causing bleeding cankers on beech tree trunks.

Detail of male catkins on a silver birch tree

Plymouth pear (Pyrus cordata)

Designated as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red list and one of Britain's rarest trees (found in only two locations in the wild). It is a wild relative of the domestic pear. This rare tree can be seen at Wakehurst Place, Kew's country garden.

Silver birch (Betula pendula) and downy birch (Betula pubescens)

The silver birch is a genuine native, growing in the UK since the end of the Ice Age. Its papery-white bark distinguishes it from the downy birch, which has reddish bark that turns grey with age. Find out more about silver birch.

Yew (Taxus baccata)
A native conifer rich in myths, legends and folklore. Although slow growing, yew trees can live for 2,000 or more years. Yew woodland is a characteristic woodland type of international significance found particularly on the chalk hills of southern England. Find out more about yew.

Looking to the future

In future years, the UK National Tree Seed Project will grow with the help of additional partners, including government agencies, landowners and conservation bodies. Partner organisations will be asked to make specific collecting commitments by adopting a species and collecting its seed from right across its distribution. Alternatively, they may commit to collect all species on the target list from a given geographic area.

Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the world’s most ambitious plant conservation initiative and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank is the largest facility of its kind. Collecting and conserving wild plant seeds provides an insurance policy against extinction, supports practical conservation and provides options for the future use of plants for the benefit of people and the planet. Most of the collections are available for research and over a third have a known use to people.

Get involved - Adopt a Seed, Save a Species

We have successfully banked 10% of the world's wild plant species and we have set our sights on saving 25% by 2020.

Without plants there could be no life on earth, and yet every day another four plant species face extinction. Too often when we hear these kind of statistics there is little that we can do as individuals, but thanks to the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership and the Adopt a Seed, Save a Species campaign there is something that you can do to ensure the survival of a plant species.

Adopt a seed for just £25 | Save a plant species outright

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10 May 2013
We have ash, beech, scots pine (remnant of Caledonia forest) Alder Juniper silver birch and even some un diseased elm.. all within 6 miles of each other.. Easter Ross. Geographically quite isolated due to Sea / Mountains etc.
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10 May 2013
A tremendous initiative, may great diverse and resilient forests follow in the future, with all the advantages they can bring.
Abuse Reported. Comment will be reviewed and removed if necessary.