A prototype system for automating tree seed planting and propagation has been hailed as a saviour to Scotland's tree-planting programme impacted by COVID-19.

The new system emerged as a response to an open competition run by the Scottish Government's CivTech programme in 2019 on behalf of Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), which challenged companies to find new ways to make better use of Scotland's limited tree seed bank.

Developed by Cumbria Tree Growers, the Tree Tape technology allows both for tree seeds to be germinated under glass, rather than in the field, and for a significantly greater amount of tree seeds to be processed all without the need for intensive manual labour.

Forestry Journal:

Alan Duncan, head of plant and seed supply for FLS, commented: “Like every public agency, we are focused on implementing the public health guidance to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus, in order to protect our NHS and help save lives. Part of this has included making some serious adjustments to our work plans.

“Physical distancing was threatening to have a significant impact on establishing saplings in a tree nursery an intensely manual process that requires people to work in close proximity for long periods, over the short and intense spring seed sowing season.

“Our fear was that 2020 would go by without a single new tree being germinated at our forest nursery against a target of nearly ten million.

“This could have had a serious impact on Scotland’s woodland creation and climate emergency targets, as well the availability of downstream work and economic activity in the forestry sector.”

The Tree Tape idea sees tree seeds primed and sown in compartments in a continuous tape that can then be laid out under glass where temperature and water can be much better regulated than in the field.

When the seedlings are sufficiently well developed, the Tree Tape can then be loaded into a specially developed mechanised system that will plant them out on site.

Alan added: “We were looking to carry out field trials and plant 400,000 seeds. However, under the circumstances we decided to go up a notch and we’ve asked Cumbria Tree Growers to plant four and a half million seeds by September.

“Thanks to the CivTech Challenge, we happened on an ideal solution to a very challenging situation before the problem had even arrived.”

Work is already underway with the new mechanised approach to get the seeds sown so that they will germinate and grow-on enough to cope with autumn dormancy.

Barbara Mills, who managed the original challenge at CivTech, said: “The revised timetable has its risks, and ordinarily we wouldn’t consider going this big this early, but these are not ordinary times.

“All innovation has uncertainties, and the real risk here is doing nothing, so we set about working out all the practicalities and legal considerations around taking this unprecedented approach.”

Michael Ashby, CEO of Cumbria Tree Growers, said: “For us, it came a little out of the blue. We were really pleased to be going ahead with a modest field trial but to then be asked to scale-up 1000 per cent in a few weeks was a whole new challenge in itself. It was a big ask – but we’ve managed to do it.”

Josh Roberts, innovation manager at FLS, added: “Everyone’s response to this unprecedented circumstance has been phenomenal and by working collaboratively and constructively, we have come up with a fantastic solution that will have positive repercussions across the forestry industry.”

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link: https://www.forestryjournal.co.uk/subscribe/

Thanks – and stay safe.