Birch is a widespread and fast-growing native species that produces a tough and versatile timber. Improved silver birch seed is available from several clonal orchards and we are now looking to plant new southern orchards and large progeny trials. We have also begun establishing our first downy birch seed orchards.

About birch

At Future Trees Trust we work with silver birch (Betula pendula) and downy birch (B. pubescens). Both are native species that recolonised Britain rapidly after the last ice age and are prevalent across the country, with downy birch found further west and north. Birches are light-demanding pioneer species that are able to quickly regenerate in an area opened by felling or fire owing to their prolific seed production and rapid juvenile growth. Silver birch will grow on a range of sites but will only produce quality timber on those of low exposure and moderate to good soil quality. Downy birch will tolerant higher altitudes and more compacted, wetter and exposed sites. Both species are highly shade intolerant and will only grow well as widely spaced and dominant trees.

As an early succession species, birch is essential to the reforestation of cleared land and its light, open canopy allows plants and flowers to flourish on the woodland floor. Birch trees provide habitat for hundreds of insect species, are particularly associated with many specific fungi and are common nest sites for woodpeckers.

A tree climber collects graftwood from a mature birch tree. The scions will be used to establish our clonal seed orchards (CSO)

Why birch is important

Often planted in native woodland regeneration schemes, the importance of silver birch as a timber species is being increasingly recognised because: a) it is suitable for medium rotation coppice (15 – 20 years), b) it is one of few fast-growing broadleaves able to grow on certain Scottish sites, c) it is capable of rapid natural regeneration, and d) of the drive to diversify forests in the face of climate change and novel pests and diseases.

Birch produces a fine-textured and uniform timber that is similar in strength to oak but tougher and stiffer. It is versatile, easily worked and often used for joinery, flooring and to make handles, toys and bowls. The bark is excellent tinder and can be used for tanning leather.

Birch trees grafted from plus trees being grown on in a polytunnel in advance of being planted out

 

Our research with birch

We have been working with silver birch since 1995 and have selected almost 200 plus trees across Scotland and northern England. With grafts of these trees we have planted five seed orchards: three composed of plus trees from southern Scotland and northern England, and two of plus trees from northern Scotland. We are currently collecting seed from silver birch plus trees for large progeny trials that will assess paternal performance. Poorly performing individuals can then be removed from our CSOs to improve the quality of the seed produced.

There is an increasing demand for silver birch from more southerly latitudes and we about to begin selecting plus trees in central and southern England to establish new CSOs in these regions. Downy birch plus tree selection began in 2015 and successfully grafted scion material collected in Scotland will form the first seed orchard providing qualified material for this species. If you know of any high-quality birch stands of either species, we would be very interested to hear from you.