International collaborative action to save the endangered Mingrelian Birch
Following the field work undertaken by our Garden Manager Paul Bartlett in the Caucasus mountains of Georgia in 2012 and 2013, we identified that the Georgian shrub birch Betula megrelica is under threat and in need of conserving in the wild.
Fortunately Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) have agreed to partner with us to create a conservation programme that will aim to conserve this rare birch. BGCI have much experience in Georgia and through them we have obtained the support of the Institute of Botany (part of Ilia State University in Tbilisi) and the National Botanic Garden of Georgia.
In addition to the financial backing of BGCI, the Rufford Foundation have supported our project for several years and we received a grant from the National Geographic Society.
- Our first objective was to carry out more detailed fieldwork to map the full extent of the wild populations of B. megrelica in the area surrounding the known populations. Collection of plant material and seed can help us understand the genetic variety of this relic species. Ex-situ conservation collections can be established using the seed.
- Now we are starting to see the full extent of the wild populations and have ascertained the level of threats to their habitat. We have formulated a conservation plan in cooperation with the Georgian botanical institutions.
- As part of the conservation plan, we are engaging with local shepherds, foresters and schools. It is our intention to set up links between the Georgian schools in the area of study and schools local to Stone Lane Gardens. By engaging with the local workforce (and in particular the Georgian youth), we hope to educate them about this rare birch and try to find solutions to the damage being caused by domestic goats and, indirectly, by logging activity.
The first step of this conservation project was the commissioning of a local photographer to record the spring flowering of Betula megrelica. To our knowledge these are the first photos taken of the tree in flower in the wild. in May 2015, Roman Tolordava journeyed onto Mt Migaria (he accompanied me in 2013) and took many fine photos.
In September I travelled to Georgia to meet up with the botanists from the Institute of Botany and Joachim Gratzfeld, Director of Regional Programmes at BGCI. We carried out field work in Samegrelo, as outlined above. This was very successful, with a great deal more data gathered about the habitat of Betula megrelica, and new wild populations found. In particular, the team discovered a large and healthy population in a remote area of Mt Askhi, near to the known populations on Mt Migaria and Mt Jvari. Seed was collected for use in the ex-situ conservation collections being set up by Bakuriani botanic Garden, Georgia and Stone Lane Gardens, UK.
Once the Field work was complete, we travelled back to Tbilisi for meetings to discuss the best methods for protecting this rare birch. Together with members of the Institute of Botany we held talks with the Agency for Protected Areas and the Ministry for Education and Science. From these talks several exciting opportunities have emerged for involving the Georgian people in conserving their rare plants.
We propagated and grew on seedlings collected in 2015, to create ex-situ conservation collections. A very important part of the project, allowing re-establishment of wild stocks in the future.
We employed a Georgian teacher to carry out a pilot education programme in Chkorotskhu school in Samegrelo to run classes teaching the children about the endangered Betula megrelica, the environment and the effect human activity can have on ecosystems. Our goal is to educate the next generation of shepherds and foresters. We hope to link Georgian and British schools, and involve Georgian students in the project via Social Media. The pilot programme was successful and stimulated great interest in the school and local area.
We have been awarded funding to continue the project in 2017. We will be expanding the schools programme, carrying out further field work,maintaining the ex-situ collections and continuing to lobby for protection in Georgia.
Click here to see the latest progress report. 2015-16 Project progress report web version
Throughout 2017 our Georgian botanist Arsena Bakhia has been running classes in Chkorotskhu school in the Samegrelo region of Georgia. This is a large school close to the area where Betula megrelica is found. In early Summer 2017 he organised a coach trip for students, with some staff and parents, to visit the National Botanic Garden and Institute of Botany in Tbilisi. This is a 6 hour journey by coach. Many students had never been to the capital Tbilisi before. This proved to be very popular and has raised the profile of our project in the local area.
Chkorotskhu school has also undertaken a video conferencing call with Chagford school, near to Stone Lane Gardens. This was a great success, despite the language difficulties. More calls are planned.
Arsena Bakhia and the Institute of Botany have been communicating with the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science and also the Agency of Protected Areas, keeping them updated on our work.
In September 2017 Paul Bartlett (our Garden Manager) organised an expedition to Askhi mountain in collaboration with the Institute of Botany, to carry out more fieldwork on that mountain. He was joined by Joachim Gratzfeld (Director of regional programmes) of BGCI. This was completed successfully.
During their time in Georgia, Paul and Joachim had a very useful meeting with the Agency for Protected Areas. This meeting established a framework for progressing the intention of creating a Protected Area for this endangered habitat in Samegrelo. The Agency staff were very enthusiastic about the project -we hope to profit from that enthusiasm as we push the project forward.
Seed of Betula megrelica was collected for propagation and inclusion within our Conservation Collection. Rock samples were also collected for later analysis. In addition ,we inspected the ex-situ collection plants at Bakuriani Botanic Garden.
The next phase of the project is to formally request that the Georgian authorities create a Protected Area in Samegrelo. This will be controlled by the Institute of Botany, with ourselves and BGCI acting as advisors.