Rare hybrid Birch found in Glen Affric

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A plant thought to be a hybrid between a tree Downy Birch (Betula pubescens) and a dwarf shrub, Dwarf Birch (Betula nana) has been discovered in Glen Affric by Forestry Commission Scotland. 

Downy birch is relatively common across the UK, but dwarf birch is uncommon and, within the U.K. is largely restricted to the Scottish Highlands.

The find - a single small tree of less than 3.0 m in height – is a very rare occurrence. Plants are mapped on a 10km square basis by the Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI) and, since records began, the hybrid has only been recorded in twenty 10km squares in the Highlands, with no records since 1999.

The discovery was made by Giles Brockman, Environment Manager at Inverness, Ross & Skye Forest District during a site visit. 

Jeff Waddel, Forestry Commission Scotland’s Ecologist, said:

“This is quite an amazing find! This hybrid has only ever been recorded a handful of times – and mostly in Scotland – and despite having done a lot of botanical work across the Highlands in my career, I have never seen it before.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the area to restored blanket bog from unproductive plantation. This has really helped habitat diversity and will benefit species like Black Grouse.

“It has also proven to be of benefit to one of the hybrid parents, Dwarf Birch, which is an uncommon species in its own right but is present in abundance on this site.”

The hybrid - a natural sort of ‘bonsai’ birch - is extremely novel and the Commission has ‘cordoned off’ the area to ensure that this single specimen is not disturbed by any work being done in the vicinity. 

Although there is a chance that it may hybridise with one of its ‘parents’ to form a backcross hybrid – the likelihood is that it will probably live out it’s life and die off.

Both Giles and Jeff hope that this news encourages people to get more interested in plants. 

Giles said;

“It is exciting that there are still new plant discoveries to be made and that you don’t have to go to the Amazon to do it. 

“Anyone who is interested in learning more about plants in the wild should get in touch with the Botanical Society of the British Isles, or an organization like Plantlife, or the local Wildlife Trust. 

“All of these organizations run a variety of events to help people get involved with wild plants. Next time you are outdoors on the national forest estate, keep your eyes peeled for plants, you never know what you may find!”

Supporting quotes

Davie Black, Volunteers Co-ordinator for Plantlife Scotland said:

“The parent of this exciting new find, the diminutive dwarf birch, is itself part of a very special habitat in Scotland, our mountain woodland. Growing in open, arctic conditions right across the northern hemisphere, it’s quite at home on damp heathery slopes. We are really interested to see how this hybrid survives in Glen Affric. This is how nature works, by throwing out different genetic combinations and seeing what survives.

“We’re working with volunteer Flora Guardians to look at how deer management can help to revive the fortunes of this magnificent ‘wee tree’ and its progeny.”

Angus Hannah, Scottish Office, Botanical Society of the British Isles, said:

"We try very hard to keep our records as up-to-date as possible, and it is great to have a new record for this rare hybrid which is only found in remoter parts of the highlands. More generally, BSBI appreciates what Forestry Commission Scotland has done in recent years to restore open habitats on the site of unproductive plantations."

NOTES to Editors
1) Forestry Commission Scotland serves as part of the Scottish Government’s Environment & Forestry Directorate.

2) For more information about BSBI and the distribution maps, visit www.bsbi.org.uk

3) Plantlife Flora Guardians are conservation volunteers who help keep a watchful eye on vulnerable plants. All volunteers are welcome – experience in conservation or botanical knowledge is not essential, as the work is straightforward and Plantlife provide any training needed. Contact the Plantlife Scotland office on 01786 469778 for more information or visit www.plantlife.org.uk/scotland

e-mail: paul.munro@forestry.gsi.gov.uk