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Rise of the Relict Birch Seed

Published: 06 October 2022

Downy Birch, or Betula pubescens ssp. tortuosa is one of Shetland’s few indigenous tree species left growing in the wild that have survived the challenges of both climate change and agriculture. There are now only five verified sites left, three on holms, where although protected from grazing they still remain vulnerable, and two sites which are on the cliff edges of Ronas Voe, vulnerable to landslips and erosion. There were once more sites around Shetland, however, these have now become extinct and our remaining Birch are in danger.  For example, when the lochs freeze over, sheep can cross and severely damage our precious trees, but also being trapped on the holms means the Birch cannot spread and reproduce.

Due to the Birch surviving on holms, exposed to all the elements, they are not the largest of trees: the tallest one reaching a maximum height of 5 feet. Unlike our relict Hazel, which can be propagated by layering, which has been successful, our Birch can only reproduce by seeds. In 1993 seeds were found and taken from the site at Inniscord Loch, however, this was not successful, and since then the Birch have remained in a perilous state, and another site visit this month found there were no seeds. A visit last month has found that a site at Clubbi Shuns had produced a few seeds and so these were collected and now are being stored ready for next Spring where they will be sown and hopefully germinate to once again restore our native Birch back into Shetland.

We'll keep you updated!


By Georgia Smith, member of the SAT Woodlands Team