30 May 2018

The UK National Tree Seed Project: 10 million seeds later

Kew scientist Clare Trivedi describes the journey of the UK National Tree Seed Project from creation to fruition of Phase 1: collecting 10 million seeds from 60 native species.

Clare Trivedi

By Clare Trivedi

Trees at Kew

Back in 2013 Kew launched the pioneering UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) with an ambition to collect and bank seed from the UK’s tree and shrub species – securing the genetic diversity of this important group of plants. Phase 1 of the project was successfully completed in April 2018 and has involved collecting and storing an incredible 10 million seeds from 60 native species.

The UK National Tree Seed Project was launched largely in response to the rapid increase in threats to UK trees and woodlands from pests and diseases such as ash dieback. The collections could also provide an important resource for scientists as they seek to understand and manage the impacts of climate change on UK woodlands. With one of the lowest rates of tree cover in Europe, UK woodlands are also under threat from land use changes and developments that may cause further fragmentation and loss of our ancient, semi-natural woodlands.

The Project seeks to capture the range of genetic diversity found in the UK for each species by making a seed collection of each species from different bio-geographic zones around the UK in which it is considered native. For example, 60 separate collections of ash have been made from all over the UK, comprising seed from 674 separate trees. Each tree is geo-referenced and the seed from each individual tree is kept separately in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. In total, Phase 1 has collected around 10 million seeds from approximately 7,620 trees from across the UK. These collections and the associated data will be available to scientists both at Kew and further afield via The Millennium Seed Bank List to help conduct studies in areas such as understanding the variation across a species including climatic sensitivity and resistance to pests and disease, which may prove vital as our environment and economy changes in the future. As banked seeds will survive for many decades they also provide a vital benchmark of current genetic diversity in our tree populations.

Collections have been made from all parts of the UK from the south coast of England, to the Scottish islands and from East Anglia across to Northern Ireland.  The project only succeeded thanks to the collaboration of a wide range of partner organisations and 280 individuals – both citizen scientists and professionals – with species expertise and knowledge of their local woodlands.   

We have now launched Phase 2 of the UKNTSP,  which involves two more years of collecting. We will focus on the remaining species, including the willow family which are known to be very difficult to collect. We will also complete and publish some exciting research that has been carried out using the collections, including experimental studies to estimate how long the seeds will survive in the seed bank and how best to store them. Two separate genetic studies have examined our success in capturing the genetic diversity of ash and yew across Great Britain, and so far the results look positive. Finally, watch out for the publication of a UK Strategy for Forest Genetic Resources. This is being developed by the project team, in collaboration with Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Forest Research, Woodland Trust and Future Trees Trust. It will help join up the role of seed bank collections with other activities for managing genetic resources from UK trees and shrubs. 

The UK National Tree Seed Project has been made possible through the support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery, the Steel Foundation and the John Coates Charitable Trust.

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