Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s part in Kew’s UK National Tree Seed Project

Yew berries from the Chatsworth estate

Yew berries from the Chatsworth estate - Credit: Archant

A 150,000 target and 1 catapult! Derbyshire Wildlife Trust’s part in Kew’s UK National Tree Seed Project told by Project Officer Helen Mitchem

The A Team

The A Team - Credit: Archant

If you have been out in the woods this autumn you’re sure of a big surprise – namely Derbyshire Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers with big plastic buckets, enormous catapults and telescopic loppers, collecting 150,000 seeds from a wide selection of UK native species! And it’s not just for fun – Derbyshire Wildlife Trust is a partner in the UK National Tree Seed Collection Project.

An insurance policy

All tree seeds that are collected are going to be safely banked in the underground vaults of Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank – forming the UK’s first national collection. Each seed will play a vital role in conservation work to protect the UK’s trees and woodlands, used by researchers working on solutions to tackle the many threats facing our woodlands, such as ash dieback.

Hand-picked seeds

Hand-picked seeds - Credit: Archant

The Seed Bank is a remarkable resource, an insurance policy against the extinction of the world’s flora. When Prince Charles opened the Millennium Seed Bank in 2000 he described it as ‘a gold reserve... a place where this reserve currency, in this case life itself, is stored.’

The project was launched in May 2013 with a list of priority native trees and shrubs targeted for collection. This priority list gave ranking to individual species according to their conservation ratings, prevalence in the landscape and vulnerability to pests and diseases.

Derbyshire Wildlife Trust wasn’t about to miss out on such an innovative and nationally important project so it sent off two members of its team to find out what the project was all about. Both attended a seed collection training course at Cumbria Wildlife Trust and learnt the importance of collecting seeds correctly:

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1 – Collect from all levels in the canopy.

2 – Only collect seeds on the tree (not fallen ones which may have gone off).

3 – Gather less than 20 per cent of the seed from any one tree, to ensure the impact of the seed collecting was minimal to the trees’ reproduction.

It all sounded pretty simple, they thought. However, gathering (and counting) ten thousand seeds per species proved to be quite a challenge!

The first collection took place at Chatsworth House last year. It was a beautiful autumnal day and students from Derby University who volunteered were in for a treat. This is because we couldn’t resist using the brand new, shiny and very large catapult – tried and tested beforehand by Kelvin Lawrence, our sessional activities officer, in his local park. We found the biggest challenge was removing the tiny seeds (three or four per fruit) from elderberries – ‘9,987 to go’ and a few other shouts were heard throughout the day!

Extracting the seeds from gooey, squidgy fruit such as hawthorn proved even harder, and innovative seed removal devices were created using plastic bags, potato mashers and buckets.

Because of the sheer scale of the project, volunteers are essential (as they are with most of our work) and the hardy crew who came out on a chilly December day to collect ash keys from Chee Dale helped collect nearly 20,000 seeds! This has been made even more important with the knowledge that Derbyshire’s ash trees are under threat from ash dieback. Afterwards a visit to the pub for a pint and nibbles by the fire helped warm us all up as we celebrated a great team achievement.

Following the collection, the seeds are dried in a special ‘seed bank’ room at the Trust headquarters. Then each seed bag is given a reference number and added to a database for Kew’s future reference. In each bag we also placed a herbarium specimen which is a branch to demonstrate the leaves and fruit of the tree we collected from. And then, the final journey – because the seeds are so important, they are collected by Kew from the Trust headquarters and driven directly to the seed bank to be frozen.

Then we rested, in the knowledge that a good days work contributed to the future of the UK’s woodlands for generations to come. Until we remembered that there are 100,000 more to go…

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