CASE STUDY: Saving the black poplar

| 25th February 2010

Black poplar tree

The native black poplar tree is now rarer than the giant panda with only 2,500 specimens remaining in Britain. The Crown Estate's conservation program aims to reinstate them

How many countryside walkers would recognise a native black poplar if they were lucky enough to stroll past one? Not many, is probably the answer. Even fewer would know that these trees have been fading from the British landscape for nearly two hundred years.

Black poplars are large, deep, round trees with smokey grey bark, and generally grow to around thirty metres.

Female trees are currently more endangered due to their particularly fluffy seeds, which in the past have been considered annoying and resulted in prejudiced planting; there remain just 2500 black poplars in the UK, of which only 400 are female.

Black poplar fluffy seeds

The tree also has an interesting history. Prior to 1850 (when they were still being planted) the trees were heavily involved in British industry.

Naturally fire resistant and generally resilient, the timber has been found in buildings, carts and wagons, scaffolding, farm equipment and matches.

Black poplar wood has also been identified in floorboards and arrows on the Mary Rose and in First World War rifle butts. The tree appears in John Constable's famous 1821 painting, The Hay Wain.

The question is, with so many uses, why have the black poplars become as rare a sight in Britain as the Giant Panda in China?

Poplar problems

First, endangered native plants in Britain are symptomatic of the fact that we have very little ancient woodland left (dating before 1600 AD), because 94 per cent of it was felled for military reasons during the Second World War.

Failing germination conditions are another problem. Given that its natural habitat is in wet woodland, the tree has struggled to survive through land drainage and woodland clearance.

It also hasn't helped that faster growing hybrid Poplars with better timber were imported in the 18th and 19th centuries, rendering indigenous black poplars increasingly obsolete.

Positive action

The good news is that the Crown Estate, the country's biggest landowner, wants to remedy this problem. Focusing on the small population of these trees in West Somerset, it is commissioning a team of horticultural students to work on a conservation program.

The idea (which it successfully put into action last year) is straightforward and simply involves taking cuttings from remaining trees for new growth.

Members of staff at the Triscombe Nurseries are supervising the West Somerset Community College students in the new rural skills centre, where the Dunster Estate cuttings are being potted and cultivated, and ultimately planted back into the countryside.

Taking a cutting

By raising awareness of this endangered tree and working to protect those still taking up residence in the Dunster Forest, the aim is to inspire public concern for the future of black poplars and to fully restore them to the estate landscape.


Conservation catalyst

So what kick-started this conservation work? Dunster Estate countryside ranger, Andy Player, says he noticed the decline of black poplars while working at Exmoor National Park. Regarding their preservation he said: ‘There was a flurry of activity in the early nineties but from what I can see there aren't many other people doing it now.'

So why is the Crown Estate so eager to proactively protect these trees and ensure their future population? Andy Player says it's about the protection and enhancement of woodland biodiversity.

'Until quite recently virtually no native black poplars had been planted since the mid 1800s. As a result most mature trees are old and in poor condition. If nothing is done we will lose them altogether,' he says.

Thinking longterm

Other conservation work at The Dunster Estate involves the clearance of invasive, foreign plant forms (such as western hemlock and rhododendron) so that native plants (Bluebells, Dog's Mercury and ferns) can flourish in their absence.

The Crown Estate's land includes some of Britain's original, lasting woodland, and Andy Player thinks careful management - not just protection - of the UK's forests that will save its indigenous landscape.

Player wants to carry on collaborating with local volunteers and professionals, and thinks the project could be successful even outside the Estate's land.

He hopes they might be able to supply black poplar trees to woodland estates further afield through the nursery. So the work at the Dunster Estate might just be the seed of what's needed to reinstate the native black poplar in the British landscape on a larger scale.

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