The beginnings of tree improvement

A relatively new science

Tree breeding in Britain is a relatively new science, although the basic principles of all genetic improvement go back to the rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900, generally recognised as the beginning of the science of genetics. There was some experimental work by individuals in Britain in the early years of this century.

It was Elwes who, in about 1900, suggested that European and Japanese larches should be planted near to each other at Dunkeld. The first hybrid larch was subsequently identified in seed beds there. Planned tree breeding programmes were started in the USA and Denmark in the 1920s and subsequently in Sweden in 1936.

There had been some investigation of the effects of seed origin in the early part of this century and, following its formation in 1919, the Forestry Commission established its first trial in 1926 comparing a range of sources of European, Japanese and hybrid larch.

A role for genetics and tree breeding in British forestry

McDonald (1930) proposed a role for genetics and tree breeding in British forestry that is virtually a model for subsequent events. He felt the need for wider recognition that tree species existed as races and advocated the establishment of delineated seed stands based on outstanding native stock. He also suggested that there should be stringent regulations on the collection and certification of seed, and that those of exotic species for use in Britain should be collected from areas of the natural range where the climate is similar to that of Britain.

The opportunity to collect and correlate records of original trees with the performance of their progeny was recognised, and it was advocated that large scale development of tree breeding by scientific investigation should proceed as soon as possible.

However, the Second World War intervened.

Establishment of the Forestry Commission Genetics Section

At this time the Forestry Commission Research Advisory Committee (RAC) suggested that tree breeding might take place at an already established research Station such as the John Innes Institute in Norwich. However, in 1946 the RAC decided to set up a sub-committee to report to them on the potential of research into forest genetics and its application to British forestry. The sub-committee reported strongly in favour of the research being carried out by the Forestry Commission itself, and in 1947 its report and recommendations were submitted to the Commissioners. This resulted in the establishment of a new group of researchers to undertake work in forest genetics at the recently established research station at Alice Holt Lodge in 1948.

The aim of the new Genetics Section was to develop strains of trees showing increased vigour, improved stem form, better adaptation to adverse conditions, increased resistance to pests and diseases and improved timber quality. Its original rather ambitious programme of research was based on the RAC suggestions and included:

  • A survey of existing woodlands to locate the best possible seed sources and to select individual trees of outstanding merit for use in future breeding studies
  • The development of improved methods of vegetative propagation, the study of the biology of flowering and fruit formation, the trial of methods of stimulating flowering and the test of methods of controlled pollination
  • The testing of selected plus trees by means of clonal trials of the genotype and progeny trials
  • The formation of seed orchards for the production of improved strains of pine, spruce, oak and beech
  • Inter and intra-specific hybridisation between selected individuals with the objectives of exploiting hybrid vigour
  • The development of resistance breeding and the investigation of inbreeding
  • The use of naturally occurring and artificial polyploid forms and X-radiation to produce new and improved varieties.

What's of interest

These pages review the work performed by the Forestry Commission and Forest Research on tree improvement following the 50th aniversary of its establishment which passed in 1998.
The genetic background describes the scientific procedures of tree breeding and the technical terms used in the remaining pages.
All species are referred to by their common name in English.