Shetland native plants play an important role in our lives. They are a connection with our cultural history but mainly support a health environment by enhancing our biodiversity, as well as acting as a buffer against climate change. But this heritage is at risk with most native plants down to low numbers, restricted to small areas and not able to regenerate to healthy levels due to cuurent land management. This leads to population fragmentation and habitat loss, increasing the risk of extinction of these species locally, directly feeding in the worldwide biodiversity loss crisis and indirectly accelerating climate change.
Protecting, preserving and restoring the various species and habitats that once were thriving on Shetland is the main goal of our conservation work. While more applied actions are required, here are the current projects feeding into our objective to help our natural heritage.
Hawkweed Biodiversity Action Plan
The team are involved with NatureScot and Shetland Biological Records Centre in conserving the rare endemic Shetland hawkweed (Hieracium) species. An ex-situ collection of each of the eighteen species present in Shetland is maintained at the horticultural unit. They can be propagated in large numbers to reintroduce them to in their native environment. This has to be done carefully as species are highly region specific.
Oysterplant (Mertensia martima) is a coastal flowering plant that is restricted to sand, gravel, shingle beaches and grow in a crawling aspect, close to the ground. They reproduce by seed that is transported by the sea, to new shores where they will remain dormant until the right conditions trigger germination. They have been found as far north as Svalbard! In UK, they are mainly found in Orkney and Shetland, but their populations are decreasing and this is why we need to look after them. The team has collected their seeds and trialling propagation methods over the years. This will help restoration effort to produce plants to reintroduce them in the current colonies and help their resilience.
Shetland's Native Hazel Tree
Within all the relict trees that have survived over the last millennia, only one relict hazel tree remains. Once an important part of the woodland cover, the last hazel tree is proof of the past woodlands habitats and is important to our heritage as it holds genetic variation driven by thousands of years of natural selection.
This last hazel can be found in the Catfirth SSSI, designation given specifically for this tree. The team has looked after it and huge effort has been put in to propagate it and clone this tree to ensure it is not lost. The best cloning method is by layering, when the middle of a branch is buried, triggering root production. This has been done in-situ, to try spread the relict which is currently on a steep ravine face. But layering also occurred at the horticultural unit where each clone is then potted.
The new clones are only a copy of the Catfirth hazel. As hazel trees cannot self-pollinate, these new trees are not the solution to ensure the future of Shetland hazels. But they are producing flower, which can be pollinated with carefully selected pollen from other hazels (from similar origin). These will hopefully lead to viable nuts and propagation of new individuals, which can be reintroduced in the wild and increase the gene pool to support a new healthy hazel population.
Relict Willows Project
A large number of native Willow species can be found in Shetland, from common to rare. The relict sites have been recorded and monitored for decades, ensuring we safeguard this proof of the past woodlands in Shetland. But as relict trees keep being lost, important conservation action is required to understand and save them. For this purpose we need to study their population’s health but also create a live record to ensure the survival of the gene pool these trees have developed over thousand years adapting to our environment.
The willow relict project has been awarded fund from the Future Woodlands Scotland and we would like to thanks them for this opportunity to conduct focus research on our tree heritage. Its goal is to ensure that the last remains of our willow genetic heritage doesn’t disappear in oblivions. The relict willow project therefore have two aims: 1) to study the genetic diversity of the different relict willow species, and 2) to create a cutting bed where a diverse collection of each species can be cared for, ensuring this important gene pool is not lost, in addition to provide material for future reintroduction projects. We hope that the results will also feed into local policy and support conservation strategy for our relict trees.
A report will be published here soon, when the results and work has been delivered.
Kew Garden Millennium Seed Bank
The Woodlands team has collected seeds from various rare plants and sent them to the Kew Garden Millennium Seed Bank over the last decades. This ensure their genetic isn’t lost and can be access in the future. This is an ongoing participation and we are proud to participate in this conservation work. For more information, visit this link.
Participation in Juniper Genetic Research
Juniper (Juniperus communis) is the only coniferous species native to Shetland. It is highly important for the local biodiversity and represent an important food supply and habitat, on which some species have specialised and couldn’t live without. It has been recognised as a key species for conservation actions. The main threats are fragmented populations, decreased regeneration and climate change. Understanding their diversity and its dynamic will be a key steps to draw future conservation plans. This is a key aim of the “Dynamic conservation of genetic diversity in Juniper” project, led by the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, Edinburgh University and Forest Research.
Over the autumn of 2022, SAT staff, Fair Isle ranger and Woodland Trust Orkney staff, have all gathered samples from the different Juniper population to help represent the northern Isles as best as possible. The results of this project, once published, will greatly help our conservation effort, understanding the genetic health of these populations and will feed into developing the next actions.
Learn more at this link.