Researchers Work Together to Protect Scotland’s National Tree

11th Jul 2014

Researchers from Scotland’s Rural College are part of a new tree health project designed to protect Scotland’s national tree, the Scots pine, from new pests and diseases.

Scientists from across the country will study three serious threats to the species – Dothistroma needle blight, pine pitch canker and the pine-tree lappet moth – assessing how best to prevent serious damage to our forests.

Dr Peter Hoebe will be studying the Dothistroma needle blight at Scotland’s Rural College. The fungal disease, which causes needles to die off and can eventually lead to the death of the tree, has been on the rise in the UK since the 1990s. The disease has now been recorded in every one of the sixteen forest districts in Scotland and England, and three out of four in Wales.

Dr Hoebe said: “We have work out why we are seeing such a sharp increase in cases of needle blight in Scotland. Are we importing it from nurseries abroad or could it be down to an overuse of fungicides in nurseries here? Young trees are routinely given strong doses of fungicide in order to protect them; however it could actually be making them more vulnerable to attack. We don’t know why exactly but we do know that you can find Dothistroma in natural forests causing no harm at all, yet we see serious damage caused by the fungus in and around nurseries and plantations.”

To work out why the disease is on the rise, and how to combat it, the research team will be studying different strains of the pathogen, comparing more benign varieties with the apparently more aggressive strains. They will also compare strains found in foreign trees with varieties found in our native woodlands.

The research project – PROTREE – was awarded £1.4 million funding from the Living with Environmental Change partnership (LWEC). The project is a collaboration between seven research institutes and universities and the team hope it will not only help the Scots pine, but will eventually lead to better protection for all of the UK’s important tree species.

Dr Stephen Cavers, an ecologist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) in Edinburgh and leader of the PROTREE project, said: “British trees face many new threats and we have to ensure that our forests are resilient to these challenges. By looking at several of the most important threats together, we can get a good understanding of how and if our forests will cope.”

While protecting tree species is important in preserving some of our most loved natural environments, it is also key to ensuring the economic health of the forestry and timber industry. The sector provides around 40,000 jobs and is estimated to add £1.7 billion to the Scottish economy.

Other project partners at the University of Aberdeen, Forest Research and the James Hutton Institute will focus on pine pitch canker, a highly virulent pathogen that is not yet present in the UK, and the pine tree lappet moth, a native of continental Europe and Asia which has recently established in Scotland. Both threats have the potential for major economic and ecological impacts on forests in Britain.

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