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Forestry collaboration aims to grow better trees faster

September 12, 2017 by  
Filed under News & Business

sitka spruce

A new research project aims to significantly increase the quality and economic productivity of Sitka spruce conifer trees – the UK’s biggest timber crop.

Using a breeding technique called ‘genomic selection’, researchers hope to identify fast growing trees with superior timber quality at a very early age. The project involves scientists from Oxford and Edinburgh universitites and the Forestry Commission agency Forest Research.

In doing so, the ‘Sitka Spruced’ research initiative could improve the economic value of future spruce plantations in the UK. In addition, by enhancing the quality of the wood, harvests are more likely to meet the changing construction specifications required to build our houses.

The Sitka spruce is the UK’s primary timber species, with over 35 million Sitka trees planted each year. After wheat and barley, it is the third largest crop by area of cultivation in the UK and accounts for around £1bn of the industry’s £2bn annual revenue.


Sitka spruce conifers produce a versatile white wood, with uses ranging from paper making to construction. But it takes around 40 years from planting before most Sitka spruce trees are harvested, and only a proportion of those trees meet the stronger, higher value construction grades.

The project will scan hundreds of trees for variations in their DNA and then match those variations with fast-growing trees that produce superior timber. This will enable scientists to screen the DNA of the trees, to identify the fastest growing, with the best quality timber.

If successful, the same technology could potentially be used to screen trees for other properties, such as how they cope with challenging environments, for example, how they adapt to dry or nutrient-poor sites, and for resistance to insects and disease.

Sitka Spruced is one of the few forestry research projects to be awarded funding by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC). It will use genomics to support accelerated tree breeding and maintenance of genetic diversity.

Economic return

John MacKay, professor of forest science at Oxford University, said: “I am really excited to be part of such a research landmark, breeding to increase the economic return of Sitka spruce. The funding from BBSRC is testament to the project’s long-term value.”

Professor MacKay said genomics offered unprecedented potential to shorten the tree-breeding process – which was key to reaching harvestable size earlier. Researchers were aiming to reduce plantation rotation from 40 to 30 years, he said.

The project was also aiming to improve the quality of wood stocks. Prof MacKay said: “The economics are clear if it becomes possible to grow three rotations in the same period of time it used to take to grow two, and also to improve the wood quality.”


BBSRC chief executive Melanie Welham said: “The BBSRC receives few forestry-related research proposals and is pleased to be able to fund this project on the genetic improvement of Sitka spruce in partnership with industry.

“We are keen to build on the legacy of the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative in which BBSRC led a multi-funder consortium with Defra, ESRC, the Forestry Commission, NERC and the Scottish government.”

As well as BBSRC, Sitka Spruced is being part-funded by the British forestry and wood processing industries. Significant support is coming from seed merchants, nurseries, forest management companies, a breeding co-operative and a sawmill.

Steve Lee of Forest Research, described input from the private sector as invaluable. He added: “The possible impact from the outputs of Sitka Spruced could be huge and it’s encouraging to know industry is fully behind this new development.”

Spruce-Up, a Canadian sister initiative, will run alongside its UK counterpart, allowing both projects to leverage and draw on each other’s international resources and compare genomic information – benefiting producers in both countries.

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