By Gillian McPherson

THEY have long suffered from an identity crisis, with many arborists believing they originated overseas and should not be classed as a native species.

But new research has revealed beech trees are indeed native to Scotland and could not have been introduced from foreign shores.

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Despite a long-running debate over their national identity, scientists from Stirling University found almost all the UK beeches they tested are from populations native to Britain and should be reclassified as a native species.

The researchers examined the DNA of more than 800 beech trees from 42 locations across Britain and made comparisons with trees on mainland Europe.

Professor Alistair Jump, from the university’s Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy, said: “The beech tree has been experiencing an identity crisis in Scotland. Evidence shows the European beech was mainly confined to the south-east of England after the last Ice Age.

“However, this tree now occurs throughout Scotland and has been considered not native by many land managers. This tree can colonise ancient woodland in Scotland, and is sometimes removed because it poses a threat to other native species.

“Our study shows beech should be considered native throughout Great Britain, including Scotland.”

Dr Jennifer Sjolund, of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture , added: “The beech tree has been planted in Scotland in the past but the planting was from native British stock and, although humans have speeded its northward spread, it would have naturally spread up the length of the country regardless.

“Our findings have significant implications on how we define native species and how we consider natural processes when deciding what we base woodland management plans on. It points to a need to look again at the identity and distinctiveness of native Scottish forests, which historically haven’t featured the beech tree.”

“The beech tree has been planted in Scotland in the past but the planting was from native British stock and, although humans have speeded its northward spread, it would have naturally spread up the length of the country regardless.

“Our findings have significant implications on how we define native species and how we consider natural processes when deciding what we base woodland management plans on. It points to a need to look again at the identity and distinctiveness of native Scottish forests, which historically haven’t featured the beech tree.”

The study, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, shows almost all of the beeches growing in Great Britain the researchers tested are derived from native populations and, as a result, could not have been planted from abroad.

It is estimated that beech trees were first discovered in Britain shortly after that Ice Age.

Neolithic tribes are also believed to have introduced them after planting the trees for their edible nuts.

The beech is classified as a native in the south of England and as a non-native in Scotland and the north of England where it is often removed from “native” woods.

There is currently a campaign by Friends of the Rusland Beeches and South Lakeland Friends of the Earth to reclassify the beech as native in Cumbria, which is backed by outgoing Liberal Democrats’ leader Tim Farron.

The research, entitled Understanding The Legacy Of Widespread Population Translocations On The Post-glacial Genetic Structure Of The European Beech, is published in the Journal Of Biogeography.