30 June 2000

Cheaper cuttings main aim of bio-mass work

THE potential to cut the cost of growing willows for bio-mass production is being assessed in studies funded by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society at Leeds and Newcastle universities.

"A major cost of willow production is the purchase of the cuttings for planting. So reducing that cost, without affecting yield, will be a major step forward," said Mike Wilkinson of Leeds University.

Emphasis will be placed upon assessing willow growth in the first year and speed of recovery after coppicing. "We want to see which planting rate produces more shoots, or taller shoots, explained Dr Wilkinson. "We also want to know which plants are the most prostate and which are the most erect because that will affect both the volume to be harvested, and the rate at which they can be harvested."

Four plant populations of 10,000, 15,000, 20,000 and 25,000 willows per hectare were planted at Gareth Gaunts Sicklinghall farm between Harrogate and Wetherby, North Yorks. Four different varieties have been planted, and all the trials have been replicated three times.

Since Mr Gaunt is already one of the largest-scale growers of willow for the ARBRE energy project, researchers will be able to compare immediately trial work with the commercial crop. Composted sewage sludge is the main fertiliser being used in the cropping trials.

Long term research is essential to help growers realise the potential of willows, said Dr Wilkinson. "Growing willows is a long-term project since ARBRE offers 16-year contracts. As more wood fuelled power stations come on stream, we need additional research so that we can advise farmers who are considering growing willows how best to manage them in UK conditions."

North Yorks grower Gareth Gaunt has high hopes for willow production in the north. He already grows the crop commercially.