Where There’s a Willow There’s a Way – At Ben Shieldaig
At Ben Shieldaig we are working with scientists from the James Hutton Institute on a pioneering method which could radically improve the way new woodland is created on many sites.
The importance of underground fungal networks to the health of trees has become a big topic in recent years. Fungi supply tree roots with water and nutrients while receiving sugars from the tree in return. It is becoming apparent that trees can even communicate with each other via this undersoil network.
At Ben Shieldaig we are looking to establish new woodland in some very challenging places, so we want to give seedlings and saplings we plant the best possible chance to survive and thrive. Mycorrhizal fungi could be the key. If we plant pine and birch where they can connect to an existing network we will be working with nature to increase success.
What we need is a way of mapping where the undersoil fungi are so we know that is where to plant new trees. On Ben Shieldaig we have found the beneficial fungi already have a relationship with small ground-hugging willows. So where there is willow – there is a better chance for any little pines and birches we plant.
The science behind this is well established but the practical use in UK woodland expansion is new. If successful this technique could open up areas for woodland creation previously deemed impractical because too much effort and investment was needed to get trees established. Willow might not always be the indicator, but by mapping what plants are already on the surface we can identify where the helpful mycorrhizal fungal networks exist underground.
The team from the James Hutton Institute have completed their initial survey and reported back. Three MSc students from Aberdeen University are starting follow-up research this month on site at Ben Shieldaig.
Scotland PR and Communications Officer