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Kickstarting conservation of forest genetic resources in the UK

08/21/2017
Participants walk around the woodlands at Wakehurst. Photo: C.Trivedi/Kew Gardens

UK forests contain unique genetic variation for key adaptive traits as they are located in a distinctive maritime environment at the northwestern edge of the distributions of several Eurasian tree species.  Conservation of these forest genetic resources (FGR) may be important not only for the country, but also for other parts of Europe and elsewhere.

European countries are well-networked to identify, characterise and conserve forest genetic resources but knowledge on the UK’s native FGR has yet to be integrated with these initiatives. However, the drivers of local adaptation and the roles of genetic diversity, gene flow and natural selection in delivering resilient forests are currently being studied in several UK native species. Understanding this variation in comparison to diversity across the range will help place local genetic resources in their global context.

A workshop on conservation of forest genetic resources was hosted by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew at the Millennium Seed Bank (United Kingdom), on 14-15 March 2017, to address these challenges. Through interactive sessions, the workshop developed an analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats for the status of FGR activities in the UK. It then considered how to build on the current situation to develop future work in light of the analysis.

A key focus was the identification and designation of genetic conservation units (GCUs). GCUs are natural or man-made tree populations managed for maintaining evolutionary processes and adaptive potential across generations. Through its large-scale sampling effort, GenTree will contribute direct genetic knowledge for some of the UK’s most important native tree species and help in the designation of new GCUs.

Across Europe, there are 3200 GCUs, covering 4000 tree populations, and 100 tree species. Although the UK has been a very active partner in EUFORGEN and GenTree, it has not yet assigned any GCUs, mostly due to the fragmented nature of woodlands, not meeting minimum requirements of population size, but also due to difficulties in assigning a formal conservation status.

The workshop agreed that action to designate GCUs in the UK, in line with those set up across Europe, should be a priority to protect FGR in the UK and to ensure that the country plays a full part in monitoring genetic resources and in other related pan-European activities. The identification of genetic conservation units will also help to improve the resilience of forests to an uncertain future climate.

Participants agreed that a national strategy should be developed to create a shared vision for FGR management in the UK, and to find practical mechanisms to better integrate current activities, identify gaps, and facilitate new collaboration.

Participation of several GenTree partners was instrumental in convening the meeting, in leading the discussions and providing background about ongoing pan-European efforts on FGR.

For more information, please contact Clare Trivedi (c.trivedi at kew.org)

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