Sitka spruce is the UK’s third largest crop by area. It has significant economic benefits, accounting for half of the UK’s £2bn a year forest industry. Grown in carefully-managed FSC-certified plantations, Sitka spruce is a renewable resource that provides timber for a wide range of everyday applications, from paper to building materials.
The UK produces only 40% of the wood it consumes. Increasing pressure on land use means that simply planting more trees is only part of the solution. To meet more of the UK’s demand for timber, the key challenge is to find ways to make existing and future plantations more efficient and productive.
Selective breeding has increased Sitka spruce yields by 25% since 1970. However, traditional selection methods are slow; it takes 30 years to select genetically superior trees and then mass produce higher-yielding tree varieties for planting in the forest. New approaches are needed that will speed up this process.
At the same time, other new challenges are emerging. Climate change and pest species new to the UK both pose a potential threat to forestry, as they do to many other crops. The ability to more quickly select climatically future-proofed trees or trees tolerant of a particular pest or disease would further improve plantation efficiciencies.
We plan to use a genomic approach to address these challenges. The overall goal is to develop genomic prediction (GP) methods for Sitka spruce and transfer these lessons to the forestry industry as a whole. GP can be used to predict important traits such as productivity, resistance to insect pests and tolerance of climate change, and it could shorten the process of effective selection of new Sitka strains down to just 11 years.
The project objectives are:
- To create a genetic linkage map for Sitka spruce and for the wider Pinaceae family;
- To develop a predictive genomics platform that will target improvements in timber yield and reduce time from planting to harvest;
- To use GP methods to develop Sitka’s resistance to emerging insect pests;
- To transfer knowledge and practice to forestry end users;
- To develop an international partnership with the Spruce-Up project in Canada.
As well as generating specific benefits for Sitka spruce production, we expect the project to accelerate developments in other species and lead to more efficient and sustainable timber production across the whole industry. The project has involvement from companies representing every stage of the forestry industry, from nurseries right through to timber processing, which will enable us to link with existing networks and translate these new approaches into benefits for years to come.
Sitka spruced is a collaboration of the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh (Roslin Institute) and Forest Research (an Agency of the Forestry Commission). It is funded by BBSRC and a group of forest and wood processing industries.