MMFN Awardee Visit to Sierra Espuña’s Model Forest in Spain

The Mediterranean Model Forest Network (MMFN) grant awardee Enrique José Hernández Tecles travelled to Sierra Espuña’s Model Forest Candidate in Spain for his study "Origin identification of P. halepensis forest reproductive material on Model Forest Candidate of Sª Espuña". Here he describes his study visit:

The Sierra Espuña Model Forest Candidate is the result of a vast restoration program in the region of Murcia in South Eastern Spain. It began in the 1890s in order to prevent soil erosion and promote basin conservation. During the first period (1890-1991) approximately 5000 ha were planted using mainly Pinus halepensis Mill. Other woody species were tested but discarded because they were not adapted to the local ecological conditions and had very low survival rates. The restoration activities continued throughout the 20th century and the forest now covers an area of around 18.000 ha.

This restoration activity has been considered as a model for water-forestry restoration all over Europe, but there are still some questions that need to be answered. The origin of the forest reproductive material used during the restoration project is not clear.

The main goal of this study was to identify the origin of reforestations in the Sierra Espuña by combining two different approaches: seed traceability (through historical records) and DNA fingerprinting (through molecular markers).

I learned several methodologies during this visit including searching for historical information and interpreting ancient handwriting, as well as sampling natural and planted stands for genetic analysis, extracting DNA, sequencing and interpreting the results.

MMFN2_250.jpg : 52.9501953125KbThe work was divided into two parts. Firstly, to obtain information about the origin of the seed sources used in the plantations during the first reforestation period of Sierra Espuña, I searched the historical archives of the forestry sector in Madrid and Murcia. This was complemented with interviews with old foresters who had worked in Sierra Espuña and a GIS map was generated showing possible original seed sources from natural populations and the location of the old plantations.

Once I had obtained the map from seed traceability I went into the field with the foresters and contrasted the potential areas to be sampled. The survey methodology consisted of selecting trees from natural and planted populations and collecting their needles in order to extract DNA. Back in the lab, the genomic DNA from collected plant material was isolated using STRATEC-INVITEK plant DNA kit.

From the historical records I identified three major seed sources that were potential natural origin of the seeds, two in Sierra Espuña and one nearby. A subset of six plantations was also sampled in order to verify whether they came from these hypothetical origins. Both approaches concluded that the local seeds had been used and that the planted stands showed similar genetic structures to the natural stands.

MMFN3_250.jpg : 60.4775390625KbThe effectiveness and reliability of searching historical records should be considered in this kind of study but in this case I found a great deal of useful documentation and detailed information to match the seed traceability. Once seed origin has been analysed through historical records it is very interesting to validate these results using other methods to verify the initial hypothesis. In this case molecular markers are an important approach. The genetic pollution from undesired origins derived from plantations into natural populations is extremely important especially when working with fragmented populations or in limited areas of the natural distribution of one species. Such is the case for the Aleppo pine in Sierra Espuña Model Forest Candidate.

It is accepted that this restoration project for preventing soil erosion and promoting water conservation has achieved its main goal. But parallel to this other aspects should be considered in order to protect these populations from further ecological disasters.

The results of this study, analysed through historical records and molecular markers, show that local populations were used for tree planting during the first reforestation period of Sierra Espuña Model Forest Candidate and that the plantations have a similar genetic diversity and structure to natural stands.

I am very grateful to Andres Muñoz, Francisco Fernandez, Antonio, Sergio Simental, Ricardo Alia, genetic lab from CIFOR-INIA and foresters from Sierra Espuña.

The host institution and the granted scientist will start collaborating as soon as new funding arrives in order to determine the origin of other species, which are much less abundant, used in restoration activities of Sierra Espuña.

Photos: Antonio Miguel Vinal Terrés

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