Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Tuesday, August 25, 1998 Published at 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK


Ancient trees face extinction

This Welsh hillside is unique because of its trees

As many as ten per cent of the world's tree species face extinction, including some found only in the UK.

According to new research, three-quarters of all the threatened species have no legal protection.

The most threatened tree species in the UK are all inter-related.

Each tree is a clone of another.

BBC environment correspondent Robert Pigott reports
Anyone concerned about genetic engineering can relax - these are not products of some geneticist's laboratory.

Instead, they exist because of a natural creative process dating back to the ice age.

The trees known as whitebeams are very good at reproducing, but not so clever when it comes to moving around and colonising areas.

Because they are copies of their parents they cannot adapt to changing circumstances and locations.

[ image: One of only 16 Leys Whitebeams in the world]
One of only 16 Leys Whitebeams in the world
All 11 UK tree species on the list published by the World Wide Fund for Nature, are from the Sorbus group.

One such species is the highly rare Ley's Whitebeam, which can only be found in the wild on one hillside in the Brecon Beacons, in Wales.

There are just 16 examples left of this tree, which was probably created shortly after the last ice age, when the Rowan tree and the Rock Whitebeam reproduced.

[ image: The Rowan and the Rock Whitebeam bred together.....]
The Rowan and the Rock Whitebeam bred together.....
Ray Woods, from the Countryside Council For Wales, calls it "slightly fertile," since it spreads seeds which are identical clones to the mother plant.

He said: "Leys Whitebeam has found a way of asexual reproduction. None of the pollen that it produces is good at all, but it's managed to find a way.

[ image: .... to form the Leys Whitebeam]
.... to form the Leys Whitebeam
"But all its offspring are identical to the parent tree, so its not well adapted to change."

Nature is not the only reason though - man does not help either.

According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre's Website showing the full list of trees, quarrying has destroyed some of the sites the species did manage to colonise nearby.

The BBC's Richard Wilson in the Avon gorge where whitebeams are surviving
Another endangered species is Sorbus Wilmottiana - or Wilmott's Whitebeam - with only 20 examples managing to live on in the Avon Gorge, where three of the other ten species can also be found including the Bristol variety, whose numbers are slowly growing.

However the Wilmott's variety is causing greater concern. The new World List says there have been recent reports of the illegal collection and cutting down of trees in the gorge, despite attempts to protect the species.

Tony Robinson from English Nature, who works in the area, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the whitebeams are actually very good at forming new species.

But it is then that their problems start.

"The Whitebeams are very much trees of open space - rock faces and open slopes.

"Most people know Mountain Ash which is actually a member of the same group as the whitebeams and this grows in very open, mountainous spaces."

He also explained how they can be protected: "What we're trying to do here in the Avon gorge is retain the open spaces, the rocky open cliffs and slopes."

The UK's threatened trees

The areas featured here - the Brecon Beacons and the Avon Gorge near Bristol - are home to over half the 11 threatened species in the UK.

In fact the south west of Britain is where you can find eight of them.

Only two are in Scotland - on the remote island of Arran, and just one in northern England.

  • Sorbus wilmottiana: 20 trees in Avon Gorge where the area is managed so as to conserve the rare plants.

  • Sorbus bristoliensis (Bristol Whitebeam): 100 also found in Avon Gorge, where numbers are increasing.

  • Sorbus anglica: 600 left. Found in Avon Gorge, but also Devon, north Somerset, the Wye Valley, Shropshire, Brecon, Montgomery, Denbigh and Kerry.

  • Sorbus eminens: 250 found mostly in Avon Gorge, but also Somerset, the Wye Valley, and Bangor in North Wale.

  • Sorbus subcuneata: Found along Devon and Somerset coasts, but population at Minehead threatened.

  • Sorbus vexans: Found along small part of Devon and Somerset coast.

  • Sorbus leyana (the Leys Whitebeam): 20 trees known at two sites in Brecon Beacons. 16 are in the wild (pictured above).

  • Sorbus leptophylla: 44 at last count. Also in Brecon Beacons.

  • Sorbus lancastriensis: Morecambe Bay, Lancashire.

  • Sorbus pseudofennica: 500 left on Scotland's Isle of Arran.

  • Sorbus arranensis: 500 left in northern Arran.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

UK Contents

Northern Ireland
Relevant Stories

25 Aug 98 | World
Tenth of tree species threatened

Internet Links

World List of Threatened Trees

English Nature

Countryside Council for Wales

WWF Global Network

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Next steps for peace

Blairs' surprise over baby

Bowled over by Lord's

Beef row 'compromise' under fire

Hamilton 'would sell mother'

Industry misses new trains target

From Sport
Quins fightback shocks Cardiff

From Business
Vodafone takeover battle heats up

IRA ceasefire challenge rejected

Thousands celebrate Asian culture

From Sport
Christie could get two-year ban

From Entertainment
Colleagues remember Compo

Mother pleads for baby's return

Toys withdrawn in E.coli health scare

From Health
Nurses role set to expand

Israeli PM's plane in accident

More lottery cash for grassroots

Pro-lifers plan shock launch

Double killer gets life

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer

From UK Politics
Straw on trial over jury reform

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Ex-spy stays out in the cold

From UK Politics
Blair warns Livingstone

From Health
Smear equipment `misses cancers'

From Entertainment
Boyzone star gets in Christmas spirit

Fake bubbly warning

Murder jury hears dead girl's diary

From UK Politics
Germ warfare fiasco revealed

Blair babe triggers tabloid frenzy

Tourists shot by mistake

A new look for News Online