About our research into tree improvement and forest genetics


Controlled pollination in a high intensity polyhouse
High intesity polyhouse and potted grafts

Our research aims to increase the quality of commercially grown species and to ensure that stock of the most appropriate genetic origin is used in forest establishment. This must address the specific purpose of planting, regional and local geographical variation and predicted climatic variation.

Forest Research is utilising new methods in biotechnology to deliver the products of its tree breeding to the industry and an appreciation of underlying genetic structures to policy-makers. These include a range of DNA marker systems and micropropagation technologies.

The development of genetically modified (GM) trees is not an objective of the Forestry Commission.

Research programmes, related topics, products and services, forthcoming events and contact information


Forest Research has been active in tree improvement since 1948. Much has been achieved to secure increased genetic quality in Britain’s main commercial conifer species. More recent attention had been directed to the genetic improvement of broadleaved species and to developing and understanding of the genetic structure of Britain’s key native species populations.

Past and present partnerships with universities and other European countries have been developed in this work through EU-funded projects and membership of EUFORGEN, an organisation committed to the development of appropriate forest genetic resources in Europe.

Research objectives

The objective of Forest Research’s tree breeding programmes is significant increases in the desirable qualities of commercially grown trees, both conifers and broadleaved species. For commercial growers, the ideal tree has a fast growth rate, good straightness and branching characteristics and high wood density with no defects. Traditional tree breeding methods have been followed through the selection of good quality individuals (plus trees), testing their progeny to evaluate the inheritance of their observed quality and reselecting the best parents for the production of improved material.

Seed orchards and mass vegetative propagation of plants raised from small quantities of elite seed have been the main methods used to make the products of breeding available to the industry, whilst techniques involving somatic embryogenesis combined with cryopreservation are under development. Current products from the programme show over 20% increase in growth rate, a slightly lower rise in stem and branching quality with no overall fall in timber density.

Work is concentrated on Sitka spruce as Britain’s principal commercial species, but improved material of Scots, Corsican and lodgepole pines, hybrid larch and Douglas fir is also available.

Widespread recent planting of broadleaved species has created an increased focus on their improvement, particularly birch, ash and oak. Partnership through the Future Trees Trust (FTT) is vital to work in this area.

Molecular techniques, using several DNA markers, are used to understand the genetic origin and structure of our native tree populations. Post-glacial migration routes and gene flow at the individual population level are the main areas of study. This research can inform the development of genetic conservation policy within the Forestry Commission. Molecular markers are also being developed to identify quantitative selection traits in parallel with the Sitka spruce breeding programme.

Research programmes

Statutory work

Forest Research is involved in the inspection and approval of registered source of seed and cuttings, the maintenance of the National Register of Improved Basic Material and the provision of technical support under the Forest Reproductive Material Regulations (2002) (FRMR) on behalf of Forestry Commission Country Services Division. These regulations provide, through a detailed control and documentation system, an audit trail covering the entire plant production process from seed/cuttings collection through to planting.