What is selective breeding?

Selective breeding: selecting the best or most suitable plants or animals so that the next generation has more of the characteristics that you want.

For example, if you’re growing trees to provide timber for roof beams then you want strong, straight trees that will produce long beams. Foresters will select seeds from the best trees to improve the quality of the next timber crop.

Selective tree breeding has been used for many years to improve the quality and amount of fruit produced by fruit trees. Now these same techniques are being used to improve forestry tree species for timber production and to assist our native trees in adapting to the challenges of pests, diseases and climate change.

Tree breeding is helping to tackle many serious diseases through hybridising (cross-breeding) trees with closely related disease-resistant species. In the UK this technique is being used to find solutions to diseases such as Dutch Elm Disease and Red band needle blight and to improve resistance to pest problems such as bacterial cankers or green spruce aphid.

In recent years, the micro-propagation of trees has been developed. This involves taking small samples of live plant tissue and culturing them in the laboratory to produce individual plants. This technique enables a large number of individual plants to be produced or bulked up from one selected parent; it can be a useful tool in rebuilding populations of rare or endangered species.

With the advent of climate change, it is likely that modern breeding techniques will prove invaluable in tackling future environmental pressures. Climate change is expected to increase the likelihood of extreme weather, stressing trees and making them more susceptible to diseases or pests. There is a greater risk of foreign pests and diseases making their way to our shores, and predicted higher temperatures may require us to source tree seed from warmer areas to maintain our woodland resource at home.

More information

Future Trees Trust

Forest Research pages on Tree Improvement and Forest Genetics

RFS Members can read more in our Quarterly Journal of Forestry.