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Harnessing the potential of birch

Harnessing the potential of birch

Birch is one of the most common woodland trees in Ireland, but has long been regarded as a timber species of minor importance due to its poor stem quality and poor survival and growth rates.

A benefit of birch, stemming from its physiology, is that it can be planted on land that would not be suitable for other broadleaf species. Additionally, birch has a short rotation period, about 40-50 years, in comparison to other native broadleaves such as oak and ash.

With the aim of providing farmers and landowners wishing to establish birch forests with viable stock, Teagasc established its Birch Improvement Programme over 20 years ago. The overall objective of the research is the development of a sustainable supply of improved, adapted, healthy seed and plant material of birch within the framework of the EU Forest Reproductive Material (FRM) regulations. The approach taken to develop sources of improved planting stock has been:

  • Locating the best examples of mature birch trees (plus trees) in Ireland;
  • Cloning the plus trees (by grafting);
  • Establishing gene banks to preserve the genotypes;
  • Establishing field trials to assess the value of the trees as parents;
  • Establishing seed orchards.

As a result of the above, Teagasc research to date has brought about the commercial supply of improved downy birch through the establishment of a partnership between Teagasc and a commercial nursery, None So Hardy Nurseries. The first improved birch planting stock for commercial planting was available from None So Hardy Nurseries for the 2016/2017 planting season.

Teagasc Forestry Researcher, Oliver Sheridan explained: “Birch originally wasn’t on the Recommended Species List, the list by the Forest Service of trees that are eligible for grant and premium.

“But there is great potential in birch. Based on the work that we have been doing, we got the improved trees (plus trees) on the Recommended Species List, so it is now a grant-aided species and you can draw down the premium, provided you use the plus tree material.”

For further details, Oliver provides an overview of the Birch Improvement Programme in the below video:

The video presented above was produced as part of the ‘10 Things to Know About…’ series, which aired on RTE and was produced by New Decade in association with EPA, the Higher Education Authority, SFI Research Centre in Applied Geosciences, the Irish Research Council, Met Eireann, the North Sea Research Programme and Teagasc.

More information on the ’10 Things to Know About…’ series is available on its website.

Further details on the Birch Improvement Programme are available here.