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26 January, 2023

Almost 100 new Scottish sites identified to safeguard trees from climate change

Almost 100 new Scottish sites identified to safeguard trees from climate change: Native birch woodland natural regeneration

Efforts to preserve the highly-threated genetic diversity of Scotland’s native trees have taken a significant step forward with the identification of 98 potential new sites for gene conservation.

A new report published by NatureScot, and written in partnership with the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, looked at the climatic range of native trees, in terms of rainfall and temperature, to identify the best places to protect their genetic diversity.

The key objective of genetic conservation is to ensure trees have the potential to adapt as conditions change, by maintaining their genetic diversity. Genetic diversity is the range of different inherited traits within a species. These traits are essential for resilience to pressures such as climate change and tree diseases.

A gene conservation unit (GCU) is a clearly mapped area of forest or woodland where dynamic gene conservation is one of the main management priorities for one or more tree species. This includes managing the trees to allow and encourage production of new seedlings and saplings.

There are currently five GCUs in Scotland, representing four species of tree: Scots pine, silver birch, sessile oak and rowan. NatureScot’s report identifies a further 98 locations, adding seven species: alder, downy birch, hazel, ash, juniper, aspen and English oak.

The proposed GCUs are on areas owned and managed by a range of public, private and non-governmental organisations including 41 sites in the Highlands, and 21 in Argyll & Bute and 15 in Aberdeenshire. Among the potential new gene conservation sites are NatureScot’s Ariundle, Glasdrum and Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserves.

The recent UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CoP15) in Montreal highlighted genetic diversity as an urgent global priority. Goals and targets were agreed to maintain and restore the genetic diversity of native, wild and domesticated species.

For trees, GCUs are being established within a Europe-wide network, known as EUFORGEN. The first GCU in the UK was declared for Scots pine in NatureScot’s Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve in Wester Ross in 2019, recognising the distinctiveness of its ancient Caledonian pine forest.

Compatible with commercial land use, GCU status is a voluntary accreditation that recognises land managers’ commitment to promoting adaptation to future change through sustainable management of genetic diversity.

Jeanette Hall, NatureScot Woodlands Specialist, said:

“The genetic diversity of wild species is now highly threatened, globally and in Scotland. As genetic diversity diminishes, nature’s ability to adapt to climate change and resist disease is reduced, leading to population declines and ultimately, extinctions.

“These potential new gene conservation units will be an important way for us to give biodiversity the resilience it needs to survive in a fast-changing world. We are committed to preserving our native trees and expanding GCUs in Scotland is part of our response to global calls to restore and enhance our natural world by preserving genetic diversity.

“The next steps will be to declare the new native tree GCUs on our own NNR sites as a priority, while working with land owners and managers to significantly expand the network across the country.”

Stephen Cavers, Senior Scientist, UKCEH, said:

“The importance of genetic diversity is increasingly recognised around the world, as we have seen with the developments at COP15, and it is an urgent priority that we now take steps to secure it.

“The exercise we have undertaken to identify these potential new genetic conservation units shows how Scotland can play a leading role in taking a science-based approach to protecting genetic diversity.

“Importantly, protecting the variation in our tree species helps to secure their future, but also provides a valuable source of genetic diversity that is essential for applications like tree breeding, as well as for forest establishment and restoration. Both commercial and conservation planting is needed as we seek to increase the numbers of trees in our landscapes, and GCUs can be a key part of achieving that.”

Sean Hoban, Tree Conservation Biologist at The Morton Arboretum, Illinois, said:

"I am very pleased to see Scotland taking steps to ensure trees and forests maintain resiliency by maintaining local genetic diversity. This effort to safeguard genetic diversity in wild populations, where it can continue to evolve and adapt, is a model that other countries can follow and build upon- it’s a vital complement to seed banks. 

“These well-planned, scientifically-informed GCUs could also support genetic monitoring and be a valuable resource for conservation interventions, and contribute to public outreach." 

Contact information

NatureScot Media
0131 316 2655

Notes to editors

The report is available at:

With the exception of NatureScot sites, site details are redacted in the published report to allow discussion with land owners and managers.

The report identified potential GCU sites in the following areas:

Aberdeenshire 15
Angus 1
Argyll and Bute 21
Borders 2
Dumfries &Galloway 6
East Lothian 6
Highland 41
Midlothian 2
Perth and Kinross 3
South Lanarkshire 4
Stirling 1

EUFORGEN – the European Forest Genetic Resources Programme – is an international cooperation programme that promotes the conservation and sustainable use of forest genetic resources in Europe. Experts from member countries come together within EUFORGEN to exchange information and experience, analyse policies and practice, and develop science-based strategies, tools and methods to improve the management of forest genetic resources. For more information see: 


NatureScot is Scotland's nature agency. We work to enhance our natural environment in Scotland and inspire everyone to care more about it. Our priority is a nature-rich future for Scotland and an effective response to the climate emergency. For more information, visit our website at or follow us on Twitter at

’S e NatureScot buidheann nàdair na h-Alba. Bidh sinn a’ neartachadh àrainneachd na h-Alba agus a’ brosnachadh dhaoine gu barrachd suim a chur ann an nàdar. Tha e mar phrìomhachas againn gum bi nàdar na h-Alba beairteach agus gun dèilig sinn gu h-èifeachdach le èiginn na gnàth-shìde. Tha an tuilleadh fiosrachaidh aig no air Twitter aig


Native birch woodland natural regeneration: Native birch woodland natural regeneration at Creag Meagaidh National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Native birch woodland natural regeneration

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Mossy oakwood at Ariundle NNR: Mossy oakwood at Ariundle NNR, Ardnamurchan, West Highland Area. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Mossy oakwood at Ariundle NNR

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Scots pines at Beinn Eighe NNR: Scots pines (Pinus sylvestris) growing beside the mountain trail at Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Scots pines at Beinn Eighe NNR

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Ancient Atlantic oakwood at Glasdrum Wood NNR.: Ancient Atlantic oakwood at Glasdrum Wood National Nature Reserve, Argyll & Bute. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Ancient Atlantic oakwood at Glasdrum Wood NNR.

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