23 February 2017
Banking the UK’s Seeds
The last decade has seen a range of dynamic and innovative developments in UK biodiversity strategy and policy, in response to the many challenges facing our environment and wider wellbeing.
The MSB (Millennium Seed Bank) has matched this with the development of an ambitious UK Programme, working to ensure the best possible quantity, quality and diversity of seed are stored in the MSB and made available for research and conservation.
The value of UK biodiversity
UK species and habitats contribute to our natural capital and the provision of goods and services such as supporting pollinators, storing carbon, flood control and human health and wellbeing.
The UK government is committed to meeting the Aichi Targets under the Convention on Biological Diversity as laid out in separate strategies of the devolved nations. The 2011 Natural Environment White Paper  set out the bold ambition to be the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than it was inherited. Further framework is provided by Biodiversity 2020: a Strategy for England’s Wildlife and Ecosystem Services which embeds the recommendations of the 2010 Lawton Review  to develop more wildlife sites and to make existing sites bigger, better managed and more joined up to form a coherent ecological network. Conservation of individual species is also highlighted.
Challenges and uncertainties
Nevertheless significant challenges are facing us. The UK State of Nature report 2016  shows that biodiversity in the UK continues to show significant overall declines. UK plant species are shown to have mixed fortunes, with around half of species studied showing decline since 1970, but half showing increases in abundance. Agricultural practices are the most significant driver of changes to biodiversity, meaning decisions taken on the future of agri-environment schemes post Brexit may have huge, as yet unknown, impacts.
Climate change is also having a highly significant impact, both positive and negative – again pointing to an unpredictable future for the health of UK species and habitats. Furthermore, our native plants are facing unprecedented threats from the huge rise in new pests and diseases reaching the UK.
The Millennium Seed Bank UK Programme
In a time of such uncertainty, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank UK Programme provides an effective complement to work to protect habitats and species in situ. We have conserved over 7,000 seed collections, many of which will remain viable for centuries, but can be immediately available for research and conservation activities. The UK Programme is working to ensure the best possible quantity, quality and diversity of seed of UK species collections are stored in the MSB – and that those collections, and the associated data and knowledge, are appropriately shared.
The UK Flora Project
The UK Flora Project has already safely banked 95% of the orthodox, seed-bearing native flora of the UK – covering 1,218 species. Orthodox seeds can be dried, without damage, to low moisture contents.
We continue to work with botanists across the UK to bank those tricky final species which may be hard to identify or rarely seed; often rare and threatened species within a diminishing habitat. For example, in 2015 a member of the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland) collected Myosotis stolonifera (pale forget-me-not), which is nationally scarce and a new species for the MSB globally.
The UK Flora Project is also working to increase the overall quantity of UK seed collections in the MSB, and to sample more populations from threatened flora, to ensure the maximum genetic diversity is conserved. Our UK collections are widely used in research and conservation, for example, CABI (The Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International) used the collections to test the impact of a potential biological control for Japanese knotweed on UK native species.
UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP)
The UK National Tree Seed Project (UKNTSP) is taking the ambition for genetic representativeness of the collections to a higher level, for the woody flora of the UK. This is only possible through a large network of partner organisations which relies on a significant level of citizen science input.
The Forestry Commission has divided Britain into 24 biogeographic zones. We have mapped the native distribution of the woody flora against these zones and are seeking to make collections in every zone in which a species is found: already over 700 collections have been made. Wherever possible we are banking seed from individual mother trees separately. Because of the intensity of sampling, we are able to use the collections in new and innovative ways. For example, we are planning research collaborations which will compare traits of a given species (e.g. disease resistance, germination requirements) and how they vary within and between both populations and families, across their UK range.
The UK Native Seed Hub (UKNSH)
While MSB UK collections are an important resource for research, Kew has recognised, following the Lawton Review, the vital need to share our collections, knowledge, facilities and skills in order to help meet the recommendations to build bigger, better, more joined up habitats.
The UK Native Seed Hub (UKNSH) was launched to increase the quantity, quality and diversity of native plants and seeds available for conservation and habitat restoration in the UK landscape. It provides material which is not otherwise available, either because the species is difficult to source, produce commercially or because material of a specific known origin is required.
UKNSH seed beds allow us to bulk up larger quantities of priority species, and we can also produce plug plants for users. Sometimes we carry out ‘brush harvesting’ to produce seed mixes from a donor site for a suitable recipient site. The UKNSH also supports UK native seed producers and users through the provision of technical advice, specialist services and research.
We have provided plant materials, technical assistance or scientific expertise to 41 conservation projects, working with organisations including the Wildlife Trusts, the National Trust, the South Downs National Park, Natural England, E.ON-RSK and Toyota. These activities have supported the reintroduction of endangered species and the restoration of priority habitats.
The UKNSH also seeks to build awareness and demand for high quality seeds of UK natives. Such as through the development of a quality assurance mark (used by Kew’s Grow Wild project) which assures the known provenance and high viability of seed.
The UKNSH makes use of collections and data gathered through the UK Flora Project and the UK National Tree Seed Project. Recently we shared UKNTSP field data on small leafed lime to help identify seed stands which could potentially be registered to improve availability of this species.
All three projects include research to better understand the storage, germination and propagation requirements of ‘difficult’ species. The Programme also has close ties with Kew’s conservation genetics team, to better understand the population genetics of our priority species, how they can be best sampled from, and how seed can be appropriately used in the landscape.
Hope for the future
Future generations may well look back at 2017 as a pivotal year for UK Biodiversity conservation. The government is currently developing 25 year plans for the UK environment and agriculture, at the same time preparing for the potential impacts of Brexit on our biodiversity and landscapes . We are also working hard to ensure our work is relevant, developing new projects to further enhance our collections. We will work to ensure our collections, data and knowledge are more accessible and to increase both the depth of our collaboration with key partners and the breadth of public involvement.
For further information, please contact Clare Trivedi (firstname.lastname@example.org), UK Conservation Partnerships Coordinator.
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- Lawton, J. et al. (2010). Making Space for Nature: A review of England Wildlife sites and ecological network. Available online
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- House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (2017). The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum Sixth Report of Session 2016–17. Available online