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Arboriculture research branches out with grant funding

Published
Wednesday 30 March

An arboriculture research project undertaken by University Centre Myerscough has gone from strength to strength.

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Last year Myerscough successfully bid for a grant from the Tree Production Innovation Fund – a scheme that’s made more than £1 million available to 16 innovative projects striving to increase and diversify the UK’s domestic tree production.

Myerscough’s project is called ‘Improving efficiency and resilience of water management in tree nurseries,’ and a brief overview of the scheme is as follows:

Tree nurseries use substantial volumes of water to produce high-quality plant material. Efficient irrigation protocols on tree nurseries will help to manage future challenges to water supplies brought about as a result of climate change and an increasingly stringent regulatory framework.

Currently, irrigation scheduling decisions on tree nurseries are based almost entirely on manager experience, which can result in over-application of water. High irrigation volumes promote individual tree size but are inefficient; this may limit overall nursery production as irrigation licences are capped at fixed volumes. Adopting more water-use-efficient irrigation techniques allows more trees to be produced without increasing current irrigation volumes.

More precise irrigation scheduling can maintain or even enhance tree quality. However, implementing novel irrigation protocols requires new user-friendly tools that can be applied to the entire nursery and are translatable across species and stock size. Existing techniques based on soil moisture sensing or tree performance measurements have not been applied at scale in the UK. Coupling developments in (soil and tree) sensor technology to enhanced data analysis allows internet-based dashboards to be developed to inform irrigation scheduling decisions in real-time.

The Internet of Things (IoT) allows a digital network to collect, analyse and visualise diverse information to inform management practices. By deploying an array of existing sensors that measure soil conditions, tree physiological status and the aerial growing environment at high-frequency, we will create time-series datasets that are not possible through visual observation or temporally dispersed datasets. Collectively analysing these data (in contrast to previous approaches on subsets of data) will more precisely establish irrigation set-points to be established and help to inform manager decision-making.

Following proof-of-concept trials, a constellation of commercially available sensors will be established around Hillier Nursery will allow tree managers to respond to real-time data coming from the geospatially referenced soil moisture status, tree water-use and accumulated stress. New analytical tools that translate these high-resolution datasets into easy-to-read metrics (e.g., analogous to a fuel gauge) that can be viewed in real time will augment current approaches.

Dr Andrew Hirons, principal investigator and Senior Lecturer in Arboriculture at Myerscough, said: ‘’This project will acquire precise data on tree water use in the nursery throughout the growing season to support novel irrigation scheduling approaches that will inform a tree nursery water budget tool. This will increase water-use-efficiency and enhance resilience to climate change.

‘’I am thrilled to have been awarded this Tree Production Innovation Fund grant to develop and enhance the water-use efficiency on tree nurseries. This project presents a unique opportunity to collate soil, tree and atmospheric data in near real-time to help manage water resources. By using the latest Internet of Things sensors, novel data science and tree physiology, I am confident that this project will create impact and legacy for tree growers across the UK and I look forward to sharing the results in due course.’’