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European Native Seed Conservation Network (ENSCONET)

Volume 7 Number 2 - July 2010
Ruth J. Eastwood and Jonas V. Muller

Co-ordinated by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the European Native Seed Conservation Network (ENSCONET) started its activities as a European Commission’s Sixth Framework Programme project in 2004. Before its inception, staff from seed banks storing wild species (mainly in botanic gardens) met only occasionally, for example at conferences. There was little co-ordination of action at national and international level, and no common protocols and standards existed. The ENSCONET network has been transforming the way that the seeds of Europe’s wild plant species are conserved. Now a community exists where data, expertise, problem solving and facilities can be shared. There is co-ordination across and within boundaries and common protocols have been jointly developed. While the European Commission funding ran out in October 2009, the 31 project partners from 20 European countries have built a strong community of cooperation and collaboration through which ENSCONET flourishes today.

ENSCONET’s impact towards GSPC Target 8

One example of the successful cooperation on the European level is the network’s impact towards the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC). ENSCONET has been targeting four key seed banking activity areas: Collecting, Curation, Data Management and Dissemination. It is through the successful cooperation in the Collecting activity area that ENSCONET has made a significant impact on GSPC Target 8. ENSCONET is also recognised as a lead partner in the updated version of the European Plant Conservation Strategy (ESPC) for Targets 3.1 and 8.1. In the ESPC document, ENSCONET is mentioned as a ‘Key Success’ in European plant conservation.

Up until 2009, the first objective for the Collecting activity area has been to prepare a detailed, co-ordinated and prioritised seed collection programme for the European native flora, with the aim to contribute to the targets of the GSPC and to the objectives of the European Commission’s Sixth Biodiversity Action Plan. A second objective has been to develop a common, high standard for seed collecting of European native plants which maximises the genetic diversity (effectiveness) and longevity of collected seed material. ENSCONET has been achieving these objectives in a number of ways.

Europe-wide collecting plan

The ENSCONET project partners have developed collecting plans at four different geographical (local, national, bio-regional and continental) levels. In an innovative approach, the bio-geographical regions as defined by the European Environment Agency were used in much of the co-ordination between the individual plans. This method reflects the nature of species’ boundaries much better than political borders would do in a country-by-country approach (see examples in Boxes 1 and 2).

The advantages of planning seed collecting activities collaboratively at the bio-regional instead of the local or national level include:
• Avoidance of duplication (making collections with no added value).
• Improved geographic and genetic representation of sampled accessions.
• Ease of adding or amending data following large initial input.
• Increased communication between partners and the means to build trust and strengthen working relationships.

The development of the ENSCONET project partners’ local collections plans has allowed institutes to prepare for the future and have a basis for planning specific scenarios for different future resources. Additionally, these detailed plans are valuable when approaching potential funders of future seed conservation activities and can be used as a tool to secure additional financial support.
But the ENSCONET planning approach has a wider application. It can be applied to “shared /overlapping regions” at different geographical scales and can be implemented to co-ordinate shared conservation responsibility of, for example, waterways, nature reserves or marine areas. The project’s Collecting Plan Report documents the method used (www.ensconet.eu/Download.htm).

The ENSCONET seed collecting protocol

One of the most important achievements of the collaboration between the 31 project partners is the ENSCONET Collecting Manual for wild species. The manual was jointly developed through a number of targeted workshops and extensive field-testing across European countries. It synthesises the current state-of-the-art knowledge and documents best practice protocols for collecting seed from Europe’s native plant species including planning collecting expeditions, sampling, collecting techniques, identification and documentation, care of collections and data collection.  A data passport form is included which will help to ensure that accurate and detailed data is collected in the field. Prepared in nine languages (English, French, Greek, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish) and made freely available on-line (www.ensconet.eu/Download.htm), the manual has a wide distribution across and even beyond Europe. The manual will be of use to, amongst others, botanic garden staff and horticulturists, seed conservationists, ecologists, natural reserve managers and to researchers involved in habitat restoration and rehabilitation.

Monitoring progress towards GSPC Target 8

ENSCONET has produced a comprehensive list of seed bank holdings of native plant species. It is providing improved on-line access to these holdings data through its ‘Virtual Seed Bank’, ENSCOBASE (https://enscobase.maich.gr). For some seed banks, this is the first time that their collections have been made accessible via the Internet.

The ‘Virtual Seed Bank’ is being used to assess progress towards GSPC Target 8. At this moment, the Virtual Seed Bank stores data from 29 European seed banks on almost 42,000 seed collections representing just under 9,300 taxa from 40 countries. Looking at threatened plant species only, the ‘Virtual Seed Bank’ stores 27% of seed bearing plants (spermatophytes, i.e. gymnosperms s.l. and angiosperms) of the BGCI European Threatened Taxa list and 44% of the seed plants on the Annex II list of the European Community Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC on the Conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora). Although the network’s focus is on seed bearing plants, the ‘Virtual Seed Bank’ database has also collated data on pteridophytes. For them, it holds 5% of the species mentioned in the BGCI European Threatened Taxa list and 26% of the species listed in the Habitats Directive Annex II list.

The Virtual Seed Bank shows that the percentage of threatened plant species safely stored in seed bank collections is not equal for all countries.  The plant species growing in the UK and Spain are particularly well represented.  The database has also been used to produce lists of threatened plant species requiring duplication to mitigate loss of collections long-term.

Outlook

Having built significant dialogue and momentum in Europe, a key aim is to maintain this in the future. The conservation of wild plants in Europe has never been more important. In a world where land conversion for human use continues apace and the effects of climate change have yet to be quantified with certainty, seed collections will prove to be an essential resource in finding solutions to these pressures. However, for seed banks to store and provide the most valuable collections, there will also need to be much greater dialogue with end-users for example with researchers and habitat restoration ecologists. At the moment, seed banks for wild plant species often collect material on the basis of the threat status. Although this is very important, a challenge for future collecting efforts will be to balance the conservation and utilitarian requirements and desires for collecting.  Through a collaborative approach ENSCONET will provide the support European seed banks need to achieve conservation of its most threatened species in the most effective way, thus continuing to contribute to GSPC Target 8.  At the same time it also hopes to facilitate the wider European research area with the provision of quality seed collections of useful plant species.

Ruth J Eastwood & Jonas V Müller
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew,
Millennium Seed Bank Partnership,
 Seed Conservation Department,
Wakehurst Place,  
Ardingly West Sussex
RH17 6TN,
United Kingdom

 

BOX 1: Kerner White Buttercup Callianthemum kernerianum Freyn. ex Kern. (Ranunculaceae) is a highly threatened narrow endemic species in the European Alps. In a preliminary IUCN assessment, it has been assigned CR. It is of conservation concern because it has a very restricted distribution, occurring only at the summit of Monte Baldo east of Lake Garda in NE Italy. Changes in land use and tourism development are currently heavily impacting on its population. The seed set is extremely low, its fruits are heavily predated and the longevity of its seeds in ex-situ conservation are expected to be very low. Climate change might also have a devastating potential impact on its populations considering their isolation and poor dispersability.  Its successful conservation is dependant on a good understanding of its reproductive biology which is currently being investigated jointly by two Italian ENSCONET partners

 

BOX 2: Onosma stridii Teppner (Boraginaceae) is an endemic plant species from Greece. It was described as a new species twenty years ago and can only be found on one mountain massif in the Greek region of Sterea Ellada. It grows only on serpentine rock which is high in nickel, chromium and cobalt and therefore toxic to most plant species. Due to small population sizes and its limited area of distribution, Onosma stridii had been classified as vulnerable in the Greek Red Book. A large part of its population has recently been destroyed due to a road construction project; its conservation status needs to be reassessed. One of the Greek ENSCONET partners, the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, is planning to collect seeds of this narrow endemic. A portion of the collected seed material will be used to better understand the reproductive biology of this plant and its requirements for ex-situ propagation.