Endangered trees

When we hear about endangered species we tend to think about animals first, but many plants and trees are also becoming scarce. Some may disappear from our planet forever if no appropriate action is taken.

Over 8000 tree species, representing 10% of the planet’s trees, are threatened with extinction due to the degradation or destruction of woodland and forest habitat or unsustainable timber production.

In Britain we are not immune from problems. There are 15 endangered tree species listed as ‘priority species’ in the UK biodiversity action plan.

Ten of these are endemic varieties of Whitebeam (Sorbus spp.) associated with rocky outcrops or scree habitats which are becoming rarer in Britain. One example is the Leys whitebeam (Sorbus leyana); only 17 individual trees of this species remain in the wild – each clinging onto steep limestone cliffs in the Brecon Beacons. Conservation of the Leys whitebeam involves careful management of the cliff site to avoid degradation and the reduction of pressures such as over-grazing. The National Botanic Garden of Wales is helping to conserve a number of the threatened whitebeam species by establishing new populations in their gardens, and the National Museum of Wales has produced a monograph of the Sorbus family.

Leyana (Leys Whitebeam) berries Leyana (Leys Whitebeam) blossom

Leys Whitebeam
© T. Rich, National Museum Wales

There are many more tree species found in the UK that have been identified as scarce or vulnerable and are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red list. The Woolly willow is one such species; a bushy willow found only in mountain areas. In Britain, only a few examples remain on rocky ledges inaccessible to grazing animals, on cliffs or in stream gorges. Grazing pressure has restricted the Woolly willow to small niches in very steep areas where it is more vulnerable to chance events such as rock falls or snow avalanches.

One of the UK’s native conifer species, the Common juniper, is also vulnerable to extinction. Juniper has a wide distribution but only a few viable individuals remain. It can tolerate a range of soils and climatic conditions surviving on the uplands of Wales and Scotland, on the chalk downs of southern England and occasionally in thickets on sand dunes. However, juniper has suffered large population declines in the past few decades and very few wild plants produce seeds. It is now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

There are many important reasons why we should conserve our trees:

Common juniper
Common juniper
© Forestry Commission
  • They are a key element of the planets ecosystems; helping to regulate water, stabilise soils and store carbon.
  • They provide homes and food for many other plants, insects, birds and mammals and many creatures could not survive without them.
  • There are millions of people around the world who are reliant upon food or medicine that can only be derived from trees. Trees are, quite simply, vital for life.

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