Game of Cones

Enlisting people’s help to keep our trees healthy was the task of a team representing SEFARI at the recent science showcase event UnEarthed, held at Dynamic Earth Edinburgh. The event was put on by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to engage the public with environmental science through hands-on activities, and was the largest NERC showcase to date with over 7,000 people visiting between 17 – 20 November.

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The showcase was targeted at families and school groups. Two of the four days were advertised to schools in areas of deprivation, and grants were available for transport costs in order to remove the main barrier to attendance.

As well as communicating the science UnEarthed was very much about showcasing best practice in public engagement. All proposals went through a selection process and the support provided by NERC at all stages was exceptional.

So why do we need the public to care about and act on tree health? In short we need more people to be on the lookout for pests and diseases and reporting them so that the authorities can take appropriate action. The UK plant health risk register has around 1,000 threats listed, but the worrying statistic is the rate of growth at between 5 – 10 new pest threats per month. This onslaught of pests and diseases is a product of the modern world where goods and people move ever more freely around the planet.

This threat is particularly relevant to Scotland. We have a strong forestry sector and in recent years around three quarters of all the trees planted in the UK have been planted in Scotland. The Scottish Government also has ambitious targets to increase tree cover for a variety of reasons including economic and wildlife benefits as well as the capture of carbon from the atmosphere. To get people thinking about these issues, a group of seven research institutes including three from SEFARI – Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, SRUC and The James Hutton Institute – came together to develop the forest management computer game CALEDON which is free and available to download at home.

Bringing CALEDON to UnEarthed, along with other hands-on activities, was the latest public engagement event for the PROTREE project, a part of the UK’s Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, which developed the game working with games designers at Dundee-based Hyper Luminal Games. The game puts the player in charge of a virtual forest and they have to make decisions and develop strategy to keep their forest healthy. Planting and felling to maintain a viable business is the basis of the game, but it is how you decide to deal with the inevitable pests and diseases that will determine your success or failure. The game provides tips on strategy and has an encyclopaedia you can explore for more information.

The game was very popular with children and some fierce competition to record high scores suggests that the game does succeed by being fun to play. The game also provides an excellent stimulus to discussion of the issues, as even just getting across the message that trees do get sick is a step in the right direction. UnEarthed was a great opportunity to speak to teachers about using the game in the classroom and for those who wanted to get more involved there was also information available on citizen science initiatives including the Observatree monitoring project, the reporting tool Tree Alert and the OPAL Tree Health Survey.

Dr Max Coleman, Science Communicator, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

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The Beauty of Roots

Roots are rarely seen, but they are important and SEFARI research delves below the surface. Roots hold plants upright and soils in place. They acquire the water and nutrients plants need to grow and, thereby, underpin terrestrial food chains and the nutrition of humans and livestock. They can also be beautiful.

To illustrate the beauty and science of roots, SEFARI sponsored a collaboration (through our Responsive Opportunity Fund) between the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience (CECHR) artist in residence (Jean Duncan) and scientists at The James Hutton Institute (Philip White, Paula Pongrac, Lionel Dupuy, Glyn Bengough, Gladys Wright), Scotland’s Rural College (Ian Bingham), and the University of St Andrews (Jane Wishart) to develop an Exhibition combining living plants growing with their roots in full view, with scientific photographs, etchings and casts of roots and root structures.

Beauty of Roots Blog

Professor Philip White said “It was a wonderful experience collaborating with such creative colleagues. I think we produced an exhibition that not only illustrated, but also invigorated, our scientific studies and artistic endeavours.”

The Exhibition was held in the lobby of The Dalhousie Building, University of Dundee, in March 2017 and items from the Exhibition were subsequently displayed at the SEFARI Showcase event in the Garden Lobby at the Scottish Parliament and at Jean Duncan’s Open Studio Event in April.

The exhibitions have proved extremely popular with the public, and over 100 people so far have enjoyed both viewing the artwork and learning the science behind the beautiful roots. More pictures of the Exhibitions can be viewed on several other blogs; including The Living Field, Dundee University, Hertourage and Plantventurist.

The artist in residence Jean Duncan said “I’ve learned a great deal about the importance of roots in the past few months. The scientists in the project were extremely supportive in helping me produce my artworks and I felt privileged to have access to such a wealth of knowledge and experience, which was so willingly shared.”

There is also still plenty of time to view the artwork in person as well as it will feature at The Fascination of Plants Event at The University of Dundee Botanic Gardens on Sunday 21 May 2017; The Byre in the Botanics Programme, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews; The Scottish Natural Heritage Conference Centre at Battleby in August 2017; and The Lamb Gallery, University of Dundee, in March 2018 or if you have another venue you’d like to show the artwork at please just get in touch with us via info@sefari.scot

The SEFARI Responsive Opportunity Funds are designed to increase the visibility of the invaluable contributions the Scottish Government funded Strategic Research Programme makes towards sustainable economic growth and improving the lives of people in Scotland and beyond. The Fund supports new and collaborative knowledge exchange ideas which add value, must be inter-disciplinary, cross-institutional, be timely, and have clear stakeholder involvement, show creativity and how they can have an impact.

Professor Philip White