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‘Qualified’ Status for National Downy Birch and Alder Seed Orchards

The National Downy Birch Seed Orchard and the National Alder Seed Orchard have achieved ‘Qualified’ status. This follows a major research effort by Teagasc to genetically improve tree quality. In the coming years, seed and planting material will be available from the seed orchards at the much improved Qualified level. The Qualified seed orchards are being launched today, Friday, 10 May, at the Irish Forestry, Woodland and Bioenergy Show in Stradbally, Laois.

The Teagasc and COFORD-funded birch and alder improvement programme began in 1998 when work was initiated on breeding downy and silver-birch suitable for the Irish forestry sector.

Nuala Ni Fhlatharta, Head of the Teagasc Forestry Development Department gave some background to this research project: “Many stakeholders had highlighted the need for more work on broadleaves, especially native species. Birch was considered to have potential for timber as it is the most important commercial broadleaf species in Northern Europe; highly valued in Scandinavian and Baltic countries.”

However, the poor form of birch in Ireland has prevented its listing on the recommended species list for commercial forestry. Attempts to import seed from good quality birch from other countries have failed, as birch is very closely adapted to the ecology of its origin. Nevertheless, over a million birch trees are planted every year in Ireland; mainly for biodiversity and native woodland schemes. Successful birch tree breeding programmes in other countries, such as Finland and Sweden, has resulted in silver birch of much higher quality (straight stem and reduced knots) and with about 26% higher volume growth.

Elaine O’Connor, researcher with Teagasc working on the Birch and Alder Improvement Programme explained “It was decided to start a birch improvement programme to develop additional broadleaf timber production options in Irish forestry. High quality birch timber is suitable for high quality pulp, sawlog, veneer and turnery. Birch is also an excellent fuel wood that is easy to handle. The project expanded to include the improvement of alder in 2005. Alder is on the approved list of forestry species for afforestation and has become a very popular choice for planting. Up to five million alder trees a year are planted. Alder was used for twenty per cent of the area planted with broadleaves from1990 to 2007.”

The overall objective of the tree breeding is the development of a sustainable supply of improved, adapted and healthy seed within the framework of the EU Forest Reproductive Material (FRM) regulations. Within these regulations there are four quality categories. Up to now, nearly all broadleaf trees planted have been at the lowest category i.e. source identified. The programme has been working towards achieving the third and fourth categories, Qualified and Tested, respectively, for birch and alder. The research team are happy to announce that the programme now has indoor seed orchards of downy birch and alder at the ‘Qualified’ level of improvement registered with the Forest Service in 2012. A silver birch Qualified seed orchard is scheduled for two years time.

The programme has been funded by COFORD with research carried out by Teagasc. Collaboration over the years has involved Teagasc, the Botany Department of the School of Biology & Environmental Science, UCD and the Environmental Plant Biotechnology Department of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, UCC.