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Future-proofing forests - Kent planting trials to help select trees for warmer times

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Sweet Chestnut Saplings at the Hucking Provenance Trial

A patch of young trees growing at an estate in Kent could provide clues to the kinds of trees we should plant for a warmer future in Britain.

The saplings are being grown by the Forestry Commission's Forest Research agency on the Woodland Trust's Hucking Estate, near Maidstone.

Traditional advice to woodland owners advocates planting trees from local provenances, that is, using seeds gathered in the local area, because after thousands of years of natural selection, local trees are best adapted to local conditions.

However, trees which are used to growing in warmer regions might be better adapted to our likely future climate, and the potential benefits of drawing from a broader genetic stock than the local area can provide are being increasingly recognised. Therefore planting trees from a wider range of UK sources might help, and research is under way to consider the implications of planting species which are native to the UK, but sourced from elsewhere in Europe.

And to put this to the test, scientists from Forest Research have planted more than 3700 saplings including oak, ash, sweet chestnut and wild cherry on the estate. As well as local sources, the saplings came from locations in northern France and central Italy. This is because these areas of Europe currently have the sorts of climates which, with the effects of climate change, are predicted for Kent in 2050 and 2080.

Laura Henderson, the Forest Research trial manager, hopes that the findings will help woodland owners to plan future planting. She said,

"Trials like this are important. Many of our tree species might not survive if climate change continues at its predicted rate, and we urgently need solutions which dilute the risk and increase resilience.

"Trees from other regions could be part of the answer, because we believe they might be better adapted to our future climate. Our findings at Hucking will help us develop guidance which could help woodland managers to ensure their woodlands thrive now and in the future."

The trees, which were first checked to be free of pests and diseases, were planted in 2011, and the trials are expected to continue for at least 10 years. Scientists are studying the survival and growth rates of each tree. They also note their growth periods and the times at which buds develop in spring - life-cycle factors which are greatly influenced by climatic conditions.

Previous Forest Research studies have shown that trees are adapted to their local conditions. For example, acorns from Italian oaks germinate several weeks earlier than their English counterparts, even when planted in the same conditions. Although this means that Italian seedlings might be affected by the late frosts which can occur in Britain, they might benefit from an extended growing period. Choosing the best planting stock to get the balance right in the future will be critical.

Meanwhile, woodland owners are still advised to plant trees from UK sources, but to consider diversifying their stock to broader UK zones.

The research will help to verify whether suitable stock from Europe could be recommended in the future.

Information on this project and other Forest Research resources to help woodland managers choose species suitable for planting in changing conditions will be available on the Forestry Commission stand at the Bentley Woodfair, East Sussex on 20 -22 September and on the 'climate adaptation' pages of the Forest Research website: .

Notes to Editor:

  1. This trial is part of a broader adaptation programme, AdaFor, which is jointly funded by the Forestry Commission and the European Union's European Regional Development Fund within the framework of the European INTERREG IVA France (Channel) England Cross-border Co-operation Programme 2007-2015, under the priority to 'ensure a sustainable environmental development of the common space'; and with the objective to 'ensure a balanced management of the environment and raise awareness about environmental issues'.
  2. Bentley Woodfair is at Bentley Country Park, Halland, East Sussex, BN8 5AF on 20-22 September, It was previously known as the Weald Woodfair.
  3. The trees were planted before Chalara dieback was discovered in the UK and a prohibition placed on movements of ash plants.
  4. Forest Research is the UK's foremost body for forest and tree-related research and technical development. Its work informs the development and implementation of UK Government and devolved administration policies for sustainable management and protection of trees, woods and forests.
  5. The Woodland Trust is the UK's leading woodland conservation charity, championing native woods and trees. It has more than 500,000 members and supporters and its key aims are: i) to enable the creation of more native woods and places rich in trees; ii) to protect native woods, trees and their wildlife for the future; and iii) to inspire everyone to enjoy and value woods and trees. Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has more than 1200 sites in its care, covering approximately 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres). Access to all Woodland Trust sites is free.

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