Finding the Best Trees in Our Forests

Current practice is to establish a series of genetic trials throughout the country to identify the trees that perform best across a range of soil, climatic and environmental conditions. However, these trials represent a very very small subset of our forest estate so the question posed by industry and researchers was – how do we use our entire forest estate as a trial to find the best trees? How can we use the information now to plant the “Right tree on the Right site” to maximise productivity?

The analogy we used was the wine industry where the viticulturist has detailed information on the soils in his vineyard, the climatic conditions, the genetics of the vines, the vine treatment in terms of pruning, fertilising and irrigation and the impact these all have on crop yield, grape quality and the final the quality of the wine. The viticulturist can then use this data to select the best grape varieties for each part of the vineyard to produce the best overall results.

The response was the formation in 2012 of the Phenotyping Platform project within the large Growing Confidence in Forestry’s Future (GCFF) research programme that drew together specialists in remote sensing, genetics, data management, soils and silviculture to address this challenging task.

Critical components of this project are:

  • Collating available soils, meteorological , terrain, seedlot,  aspect and forest management data
  • Remote sensing e.g. using airborne LiDAR to identify the superior performing trees across the forest estate
  • Analysis to delineate  individual trees, mapping and locating these superior trees on the ground using advanced GPS technology
  • Follow-up on-ground validation   of tree quality including for example stem form, branching and wood quality
  • Parentage analysis of the superior trees using DNA techniques
  • Large data management and analytics to bring all this information together into recommendations for forest managers as illustrated below.

Acknowledgement: Jonathan Dash, Scion

Attendees at the workshop heard of the excellent progress that has been made by the research team in identifying superior trees from LiDAR data, the massive data analysis required to isolate out the impacts of soils, forest management and other environmental factors to identify the best genotype on that site, actually finding those individual trees, confirming tree parentage and genetics using DNA sampling and using this information to drive further deployment of these high-performing genetics to optimise forest productivity (“Right tree, Right site”).  In the future, this method may also be used to identify “plus trees” to screen test trees in the breeding process. Participants also came away with a good understanding of the types of information that forest owners will need in the future to be able to undertake this type of work in their forests or regions.

Whilst the techniques being applied here are common in other plant growing systems, the work being done in this programme is world leading in forestry and has exciting potential for the way we manage our forests and the way we undergo tree breeding in the future.