Forestry in South Africa
Thursday, August 11, 2022

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Research : ICFR

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The Institute for Commercial Forestry Research (ICFR) is a non-profit organisation, providing project-based research solutions and related services in support of forest management in southern Africa. 

From its establishment in 1947 as the Wattle Research Institute, the ICFR has provided important research support to the South African forestry sector. In response to changes in a very dynamic sector, the ICFR has transformed significantly over the years. Today the ICFR provides research capability and applied research solutions to various funding consortia addressing sustainable production and tree improvement objectives. To achieve desired research project goals the ICFR works closely with other research institutes, universities, and other research partners.

Multi-year research projects and platform funding form the basis of the research focus, from which various short-term value-adding projects and pilot studies evolve. The mandate and expertise of the ICFR also extends to other tree crops (i.e.  macadamia nut orchards), particularly where they are a choice for commercial farmers.

Student and intern development plays an important role in the work and research efforts of the ICFR. Collaborative work with academic institutions and research partners has resulted in an increasing mentoring and supervisory role for post-graduate students and ICFR is a recognised host institution for the placement of interns by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), important both for the development of skills and capacity for the sector, an to enhance value from the projects

In addition to the in-house complement of scientists, the ICFR has established formal associations with key experts in relevant areas of forestry research through the appointment of research associates and the use of specialist advice and support from relevant consultants.

Key areas of expertise and research at the ICFR are tree breeding for wattle and eucalyptus, integrated pest management, spatial technologies, and analytical laboratory analysis. Researchers are supported by a highly skilled technical team, an on-site research nursery, a well-equipped analytical laboratory, and a library with the most comprehensive collection of forestry related publications in the country including ICFR publications and document archive. This resource is invaluable to researchers, practicing foresters, academic partners, and students.

Current multi-year research projects are wattle tree improvement, eucalypt tree improvement, eucalypt forest protection, baboon damage impact and wattle tannin properties. Short-term projects include the appraisal of harvesting residue potentially available for bioenergy production and several pilot projects testing the utility of near infrared spectroscopy, seed germination and vigour in a variety of crops and the screening of tannin quality.

More information on current projects and platforms are highlighted below.

Wattle tree improvement

The Wattle Breeding Programme aims to develop genetic material that yields better growth than current planting stock and is resistant to existing and new pest and diseases, frost and other environmental risks. Wattle rust disease is a major threat to the South African black wattle industry. Identification and deployment of genetically rust resistant sources is currently the only alternative to manage this pathogen in black wattle plantations. Alongside the identification of rust-resistant clones, the ICFR has recently established new seed orchards which will produce seed highly resistant to rust and of superior growth than current planting stock. The ICFR is the sole supplier of improved wattle seed for South African wattle growers.

The development of wattle hybrids between black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) and green wattle (Acacia decurrens) is a recent focus area in the breeding programme. Unlike A. mearnsii, A. decurrens is not affected by rust, however, its tannin is of inferior quality and is not favoured by the bark processing factories. Thus, the view is to develop wattle hybrid varieties with increased rust resistance and acceptable tannin quality. In areas prone to frost damage, there is ongoing work to develop genetic stock tolerant to frost and resistant to rust, a major challenge as such material is very limited in the current breeding population. Genetic improvement for other traits of economic importance including growth, stem form, gummosis resistance and tannin quality is part of the long-term breeding strategies for both the rust-resistant and frost-tolerant breeding populations.

Eucalypt tree improvement

Eucalypt genetic improvement commenced in the 1980s at the ICFR and provenance introductions for a range of eucalypt temperate species took place in the 1980-1990s. These have served as base populations for advanced generation breeding at the ICFR and in-house breeding programmes of large companies. In 2018, the ICFR was granted autonomy to utilise existing ICFR breeding trials and germplasm stored in seed archives for the benefit of the broad forestry sector. This includes CSIR's breeding archives, with subtropical eucalypt species, that was transferred to the ICFR at the same time.

Eucalypt breeding activity is aligned to funder needs with testing of existing and new hybrid combinations with important consideration of changing climate, new pests and diseases, and other environmental challenges. Commercially important species are identified for further breeding work together with less common species that have potential as hybrid partners. The goal is the development of hybrid clones suitable to the different commercial climatic areas and markets/products.

The ICFR produces improved seed for a range of important commercial temperate eucalyptus for the local and overseas markets. Improvement level ranges from first to fourth generation depending on the species.

Forest Protection

The forest protection projects provide research-based recommendations based on integrated pest management principles that can be applied to maintain plantations in a healthy and productive condition. Key is the evaluation of the relationship between levels of damage and the resulting losses in productivity, and optimisation of measures of intervention in terms of type, timing, and method. The current focus of the project is on eucalypts and the Eucalyptus snout beetle (Gonipterus sp.n.2), currently the most prominent eucalypt canopy pest, with the objective of quantifying the impact of varying levels of canopy damage on growth of eucalypts; and to develop an "early warning sign system" for proactive intervention based on simple metrics related to the life stages of the pest. The long-term nature of these trials has sparked several collaborative projects, with the trials used as a study site for Gonipterus research projects based at the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI). Information gained from these trials will provide quantitative estimates of yield loss and a simple early detection protocol that will facilitate effective integrated pest management of the Eucalyptus snout beetle.

Baboon damage

For several decades, damage caused by baboons has been a major concern particularly in pine plantations in Mpumalanga. A concerted effort to quantify the damage and resulting economic losses and to understand the triggers of the behaviour leading to the damage was initiated in 2012 through a collaboration between the forestry industry, the ICFR and the University of Cape Town. The project aims to develop the knowledge required for an effective and sustainable baboon damage management strategy and is made of three components:

  • Remote sensing for monitoring baboon damage at varying spatial and temporal scales
  • Quantify economic losses based on levels and type of damage
  • Understand the triggers of this behaviour

Spatial Technologies

The FSA funded Spatial Technology platform ensures capacity in GIS and remote sensing-based research in support of ICFR projects, FSA members, industry initiatives, and academic partners. Over the years, the ICFR has developed a strong, trusted relationship with its industry partners, and the spatial technology platform has become pivotal in collaborative projects requiring the sharing of sensitive company information. Among the key industry initiatives where this platform has been playing an important role is the South African Sirex Control programme, the annual Leptocybe survey, and the FABI pest and disease database. The platform is strongly involved in research applying remote sensing to monitoring forest health. Extensive work has been done on baboon damage and the wattle rust, and a new project investigating the potential of using remote sensing technologies to monitor eco-physiological aspects of forest health such evapotranspiration rate monitoring is being initiated as a post graduate study with Nelson Mandela University. In addition, the platform works closely with FABI on several projects requiring geospatial analyses, mapping and georeferencing of insect pests, pathogens, and their biological control agents. Skills and expertise in spatial technologies are available to FSA members for company specific projects and recently, the ICFR has expanded its realm beyond forestry and, through a collaboration with Macadamias South Africa (SAMAC), where spatial technologies expertise has been applied to develop a site classification for macadamia orchards.

The spatial technologies platform also plays an important role in mentoring and capacity development through the supervision of post-graduate students working on a variety of research topics, from process-based productivity models to big data mining and remote sensing of forest health, through close collaborations with UKZN, Stellenbosch University, Nelson Mandela University and Pretoria University.

This platform is responsible for the management of the weather data on behalf of the forestry industry; through a collaboration with FABI and the Pretoria University master's in information technology programme, this invaluable dataset of daily rainfall and temperature data from 1950 to current will soon be available to members via a web-based application.

Analytical Laboratory Services

The ICFR analytical laboratory provides timeous high-quality data to the research projects and growers that depend on analytical service, looking beyond routine soil and plant analysis to develop specialized methods to meet research and specific management requirements. Equipment includes a near infra-red (NIR) spectrometer and a microwave plasma atomic emission spectrometer (MP AES) which ensure accurate measurements and support novel developmental techniques. This platform, established at the ICFR with FSA funding continues to grow in services and research areas providing real returns for the forestry industry in South Africa.

Site resilience

The ICFR continues to play a pivotal role in the technical aspects of the multi-rotation site resilience project. The pillars of this project are five nutrient depletion trial, which were established to understand the risk of nutrient depletion associated with harvesting and residue management across key lithologies, as well as the ability of these sites to recover, once depleted. As part of the industry effort to monitor the long-term sustainability of its operations, a network of long-term soil monitoring plots is being established across the forestry landscape to benchmark the impact of multiple forestry rotations on soil nutrients. Thirty plots have been established to date, with about ten new plots added each year. This project has a strong analytical laboratory component and relies on the ICFR analytical laboratory for both routine analyses and the development of novel technique to improve nutrient pool size estimates. The project is part of a PhD study on the long-term sustainability of commercial afforestation and the impact on water and nutrient resources.

Information Support Centre

Over many years the ICFR has maintained a technical library with collections important to plantation forestry research and management, and widely used by FSA members, students and academics at South African tertiary institutes, and various other stakeholders in the industry. The centre offers a valuable source of forestry information for the industry, providing support, storage and access to relevant reports, journals, books and related literature.


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