Sowing seeds in Sheffield to help tree species survive

Sheffield's association with trees has become linked with a long-running battle over council felling work - but now the city is in the headlines for more positive reasons. Chris Burn reports.

The words ‘Sheffield trees’ conjure up images of protests and arrests following the lengthy battle over controversial felling work in the city linked to a council highways maintenance project but for once the phrase has a less contentious connotation.

A team from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew recently headed out to the west of the city to collect seeds as part of The UK National Tree Seed Project.

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The team went searching for seeds from rowan and elder trees from the Dark Peak area of the Peak District and also visited sites in the limestone-rich Derbyshire Dales to target spindle and buckthorn, both known to occur more frequently on this type of soil.

Tree seeds collected as part of the project will be safely banked in the underground vaults of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank – forming the UK’s first national collection of tree seeds, an initiative which was launched back in 2013.

It is intended that the collected seeds will play a vital role in conservation work to protect UK trees and woodlands, including research against pests and diseases such as ash dieback. The collections, and associated data, will be made available to researchers working on solutions to tackle the many threats facing the country’s woodlands.

The trips to South Yorkshire and Derbyshire saw sizeable seed collections taken from 37 separate trees. Ripe seed-bearing fruits could be plucked directly from individual trees ready to be transported to the Millennium Seed Bank where scientists can then curate, monitor and attempt to germinate the banked seeds.

Upon arrival at the Millennium Seed Bank, the seeds are immediately removed from the covering fruit to prevent fermentation. They are then dried in a special temperature and humidity-controlled environment before being stored in the vault at –20°C.

The seeds should remain viable for many decades and will be available to support research and on-the-ground conservation activity.

Clare Trivedi, UK National Tree Seed Project Co-ordinator at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, says: “Building up our seed collections of the nation’s favourite and most important tree species is a vital step in combating the multiplying pests and diseases which threaten to alter our landscape dramatically.”

Following the collecting trip Ian Willey, Fieldwork Officer for the UK National Tree Seed Project, said “It’s always a joy to work in the peaks, an area of England I have visited many times over the years.

“The trip this time was a great success due in no small part down to the local knowledge and assistance provided by the National Trust, Natural England, RSPB, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust branches and the Arkwright Society. From the limestone outcrops in Cromford to wooded areas on the Eastern Moors we were able to geo-tag and collect thousands of seeds from individual trees whose importance in the future we may not yet know”.

The UK National Tree Seed Project, which is supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery, launched in 2013 with the aim of securing genetically diverse collections of UK native trees and shrubs. The target species include many which underpin the UK’s wider plant and animal diversity, as well as supporting woodland industry, tourism and recreation, such as ash, juniper, Scots pine, alder, beech, silver birch and yew.

So far more than 12.5 million seeds have been collected for The UK National Tree Seed Project from over 8,000 individual trees across the UK. The project has also received more than 1,000 seed collections from partners across the country.