Gene Conservation Units

Melissa Minter ,
1 Oct 2020

Melissa Minter is a PhD researcher at the University of York with partners Natural England and NatureScot. Her research looks into the conservation genetics of the mountain ringlet butterfly, the UK’s only montane butterfly which has shown declines under recent climate change. As part of her PhD, she completed a placement with NatureScot investigating whether Gene Conservation Units could be used for the conservation of genetic diversity in wild populations.

Biodiversity is more than animals and plants, and the habitats they form - it also includes genetic diversity; but until recently the benefits to genetic resources has largely gone unnoticed.

The University of York and NatureScot (Scotland’s nature agency) has been exploring the idea of recognising areas as Gene Conservation Units (GCUs) for genetic conservation of species. GCUs have been established widely across Europe for trees and in Scotland Beinn Eighe was recently registered as a GCU to recognise the management of Scots Pine there.

The aim of a GCU is to protect genetic diversity and local variants across their geographic range. This will help to conserve and ensure natural adaptation to environmental changes will continue; the hope is that the GCU concept for species other than trees will extend to Europe and beyond.

GCUs are a voluntary registration (not statutory designation) with their primary aim being to recognise good practice and stewardship from landowners. Registration is not aimed at constraining management practices - sites can continue to be managed for economic reasons, for example, many of the forestry sites already registered as GCUs are primarily managed for commercial reasons. Similarly, boundaries of GCUs can be flexible – allowing boundaries to move, for example if species move. Registration would recognise that landowners are managing their land in the best way, and ensure that species persist under future environmental change.

We have been working on criteria for creating a GCU for any species and we used a questionnaire sent to landowners and conservationists to gather opinions on the enthusiasm and feasibility of creating more GCUs. These opinions were mainly positive, and simple guidelines for creating GCUs for landowners are currently being put together. Eventually, there would be an online database in which landowners can register their land as GCUs.

We are very keen on continuing to work with landowners throughout this process, and would like to work with SLE members to identify and create the first selection of GCUs in Scotland.

We know that SLE members take pride in their contribution to Scotland’s species and habitats and creating GCUs will contribute to genetic diversity as well as other aspects of biodiversity. This will mean Scotland will be at the forefront of genetic conservation of wild species, with the global implementation of GCUs to hopefully follow, and SLE members will be an integral part of this.  

 For further information please contact Melissa Minter -