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Andrew Hirons, supported by Fund4Trees

Improving urban forest establishment

Dr Andrew Hirons from Myerscough College provides an update on research supported by a research grant from Fund4Trees.

Improving urban forest establishment, resilience and performance using trait-based tree selection

By Dr Andrew Hirons

Trees greatly enrich our urban environment through their provision of a wide range of ecosystem services. However, the contribution trees make is proportional to the health of the individual tree and urban forest as a whole. Impoverished growth environments, high mortality rates and poor species diversity act to diminish the ecosystem services provided by trees and make the urban forest vulnerable to future climate scenarios.

Professionals tasked with securing the future of our urban forests will be greatly aided by robust selection guidance on tree species and cultivars. Plant traits relating to the tolerance of water deficits will be particularly valuable since water deficits frequently impose limits on tree development in urban environments and lead to early tree mortality. For example, the leaf water potential at turgor loss (ΨP0) provides a robust measure of a plant’s ability to survive low water availability since a more negative ΨP0 allows the leaf to maintain physiological function for longer in drying soils. Using a novel approach, this project aims to develop quantifiable trait-based guidance for a wide range of species that can be used by arboriculturists, urban foresters, landscape architects and tree nurseries to help establish a resilient urban forest for the future.

Andrew Hirons, supported by Fund4Trees
Andrew Hirons, supported by Fund4Trees

The Fund4Trees research grant has kindly supported this collaborative research project between Andrew Hirons (Myerscough College) and Henrik Sjöman (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences: SLU). Please look out for the results that will be shared at future arboricultural conferences and in academic literature.

Feel free to contact Dr Andrew Hirons ahirons@myerscough.ac.uk if you would like any further information on this project. See October 2016 update below.

Dr Andrew Hirons
Myerscough College
Senior Lecturer in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry

Update (October 2016)

This year, the project has made a number of advances. During the spring and summer, we have been able to collect new data from plant material at Kew gardens and Hillier Nursery. The focus has been on species from the genus Tilia, Fraxinus, Carpinus and Ostrya but have included a range of other species particularly from Hillier. In total, there will be drought tolerance data on 46 species.

These data have contributed to the existing data-set that was collected in the previous year. I have presented some of the work at the ISA annual conference in Texas (USA). This was well received and generated a good level of interest.

During this autumn, wood density data will be collected from the species to allow co-variation in trait data to be evaluated.

The project has also been boosted by some NERC funding that will allow these data to be integrated into some species selection guidance that will be published by TDAG at the end of 2017. This will significantly increase the impact of this work and ensure it reaches professionals across the green infrastructure sector.

Launch of the Heart-Rot project at Windsor great Park. Fund4Trees trustees (yellow t-shirts) Mick Boddy and Martin Gammie, with Ted Green, Professor Lynne Boddy and Emma Gilmartin.

Grant awarded to Heart-Rot project at Cardiff University

Researcher Emma Gilmartin writes about a project supported by a grant from Fund4Trees

The lives of fungi and trees are intimately involved, but there’s more to it than mycorrhizae or mildew.

Professor Lynne Boddy (project supervisor next to Martin & the infamous Ted Green next to Mick
Launch of the Heart-Rot project at Windsor Great Park. Fund4Trees trustees (yellow t-shirts) Mick Boddy and Martin Gammie, with Ted Green, Professor Lynne Boddy and Emma Gilmartin.

Fungal decay in the interior of tree trunks and large branches, termed heart-rot, is a natural part of tree ageing. Heart-rot and associated hollowing is ecologically essential for a range of species, including birds, several rare invertebrates and other fungi. We peer into the oldest trees in the country and see that large volumes of heartwood have decayed away leaving an outer ring of functional sapwood. These trees are hollow but not empty; indeed, they are full of life.

I’m grateful to Fund4Trees for their support of my current PhD research. Based at Cardiff University, I am beginning to explore the ecology of heart rot and associated organisms, with project partners at Natural England, The Crown Estate and City of London. Relatively little is known about heart rot, probably because forestry research and practice is focused on young trees. Though there are some ideas, we don’t know how fungi enter and establish in standing trees, how fungal communities change through time, and how this affects patterns and speed of decay.

With a focus on beech (Fagus sylvatica) at Windsor Great Park and Epping Forest, we have begun to map fungal communities in trees at a range of decay stages. This is an important first step and survey element which will yield clues to initial questions and direct subsequent work. So far we have done this the traditional way, by identifying mycelium grown from wood chip samples taken once a tree has fallen. A less-destructive complement, however, is next generation sequencing. This is a method of producing entire community profiles based on DNA extracted from a just small amount of sawdust. Sequencing DNA from wood is an immensely exciting prospect for discovering hidden diversity that we might never encounter as mushrooms and brackets, or as fungal cultures. The technology is expensive, though improving and the grant provided by Fund4Trees will go some way towards furthering this key research.

Ultimately, we would like to use a better understanding of heart rot to increase the proportion of various heart rot niches. In areas with a generation gap between ancient or hollow trees and young trees without decay, dependent organisms have no new habitats to move into. One way of addressing this problem might be to inoculate trees with suitable heart-rot fungi, though this is some way off. The results of the sequencing study will be published in 2016, which we hope will be of interest not only to those who study fungi, but to anyone interested in trees, conservation and arboriculture.

Researcher Emma Gilmartin
Researcher Emma Gilmartin

Emma Gilmartin
Cardiff University
School of Biosciences
Sir Martin Evans Building,
Museum Avenue, Cardiff, Wales.
CF10 3AX