What plant materials should we use and how should they be managed to provide Europe with healthy and productive forests in a future climate?

The Ålbrunna Norway spruce seed orchard. Currently the main provider of improved plant material in central Sweden. One of many seed sources that need to be characterized in detail in the B4EST project. Picture courtesy of  Almqvist, Skogforsk

The selection of plant materials, for example seedlings and saplings, is one of the most important decisions that a forest manager will make when establishing or regenerating a forest. The decisions made will have a fundamental influence on the performance of the trees and will have consequences over the entire life of a forest stand. If chosen correctly, used at suitable sites and managed properly, genetically improved plants combine higher rates of growth, improved stem and wood quality and will be better adapted to cope as our climate changes.

In B4EST we are combining new scientific advances in forest genetics, silviculture, molecular biology and climate research with the needs of forest owners and other stakeholders to develop guidelines and decision support tools to enable greater and more informed use of genetically improved plants in forestry. An important feature of our work is that the information and tools we create will be applicable to contemporary genetically improved plant material like seed orchard crops and clones or clonal mixes.

To develop the guidelines and tools we will make use of mathematical models developed in B4EST which describe how trees of different genetic make-up react to climatic conditions (like drought, heat, precipitation and frost) as well as damaging biological agents such as insects and fungi. The models will be used to predict the performance of genetically improved plant material in future climatic conditions to understand ‘deployment zones’.

To inform the development of our models and tools, we will also be working with for example, forest owners and forest owner associations, forest managers, larger forest companies to explore and create a generic definition of tree ‘performance’. We will explore for example if it should include tree growth and survival, increased stem and wood quality, as well as the ability to avoid damages from climatic events (like frost or drought) and attacks from biological agents such as insects and fungi.

As we discussed earlier, the performance of a forest stand results from the combination of the plant material used and the way in which it is managed once planted. A major aim of the project will be to improve existing models which estimate tree growth and stand dynamics (how the trees as a group or a stand develop over time given for example, silvicultural actions and the properties of a site) to take account of the genetic gains that may be achieved from using genetically improved plant material and other important factors identified by B4EST, like group performance, genetic diversity and adaptive properties. These will be used to simulate different silvicultural practices at both forest stand and landscape scales and enable us to compare, evaluate and recommend alternative ways of managing forest stands as well as optimizing the genetic gain.

Finally, we will also develop a framework for providing deployment recommendations for genetically improved plants that are based on biological constraints rather than administrative ones. In other words the information will be categorised over regions with similar biological backgrounds and climatic conditions and a common characterization of plant material. In this way we hope to facilitate cross-border collaboration in the use of plant materials. We will also be identifying and discussing with relevant stakeholders any national and EU rules that may restrain or prevent the use of new clones and varieties.

This article explains the research that will take place in B4EST Work Package 4 which is led by Mats Berlin, Skogforsk, Sweden.

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