An innovative prototype system for automating tree seed planting and propagation has been hailed as a saviour for 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) – that challenged companies to find new ways to make better use of Scotland’s limited tree seed bank.
The ‘Tree Tape’ technology – developed by Cumbria Tree Growers – 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.
And it does so without the need for intensive, close proximity manual labour.
Alan Duncan, FLS’s Head of Plant & Seed Supply, said:
“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.”
Without tree seed being sown there would be no work for nurseries, no planting of new forests and no replanting of areas felled for timber. All this would ultimately lead to longer-term, knock-on effects for sawmills and the timber trade that make up Scotland’s £1 billion pound forestry sector. It would give rise to problems that might take years to resolve.
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 in to a specially developed mechanised system that will plant them out on site.
“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 Civ Tech 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, added;
“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% in a few weeks was a whole new challenge in itself. It was a big ask – but we’ve managed to do it.”
FLS, CivTech and Cumbria Tree Growers worked around the clock to get the initiative off the ground and into the field with legal agreements signed and seeds secured.
Josh Roberts, Innovation Manager at FLS, said;
“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.”