William Macalpine

RESEARCHER AND WILLOW BREEDER FOR ROTHAMSTED RESEARCH

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NAME William Macalpine JOB Researcher, Willow Breeder COMPANY Rothamsted Research AGE 32 SALARY* £25,000 - £30,000 *industry average

What do you do? 

I am a willow breeder at Rothamsted Research. I work in a team that is trying to improve the yield of short rotation coppice (SRC) willows, a perennial biomass energy crop. SRC willows can be grown profitably as a low input crop on less productive land providing biodiversity benefits compared with conventional arable systems. Woody biomass is harvested from SRC willow plantations every 2-3 years and used as a fuel.

Today the harvested biomass is mainly used for thermal conversion technologies (e.g. production of electricity and heat); it offers reduced greenhouse gas emissions and ensures the security of fuel supply compared to fossil fuels. New varieties are important because yield increases make the crop more productive per unit area and more economic for growers. New varieties may also be more suited to a wider range of environments/future climates.

What do you enjoy about being a Researcher?

It’s great to see a willow that I’ve produced by conducting the original cross pollination progressing through successive breeding trials to eventually become registered as a commercial variety.   I also like the seasonal variety that the job brings, as well as the mix of working in the field, the glass houses, the laboratories and the office.    

What’s not as exciting?

On the down side, it can take 10 years from the initial cross-pollination before you register a variety, which can feel like a long time!

How did you decide what to do when you left school?

At 16, I found it really difficult to decide whether to go down a Horticultural or Agricultural path.  After getting work experience in both sectors I finally settled on a degree in Agriculture at the University of Reading.  I then had to choose if I wanted to specialise in crops or animals.  I chose crops and took as many crop science modules as I could.

Did you gain work experience to help you to be a Researcher?

Yes, I did quite a lot of work experience!  I spent my school holidays helping out on my uncle’s dairy farm, and I worked for a whole year on a pig breeding unit between school and university.  When I went to university I spent my summer breaks as a harvest student at a large mixed farm in Essex and as an assistant to the Willow Breeder at Long Ashton Research Station. It was at Long Ashton that I got the research bug!

What qualifications do you have?

I have 9 GCSEs, 3 A Levels, and achieved a 2:1 for my degree in Agriculture BSc at the University of Reading.

What’s your ambition?

I hope to carry out a PhD at Rothamsted Research to identify water-use efficient and drought tolerant traits in SRC willow. I would hope that output from this work would be incorporated into the breeding programme and traits that make SRC biomass willows more adapted to drier sites.

What tip would you give to someone wanting to get into agriculture?

Get as much work experience as you can to understand what you like and don’t like – use your summer holidays wisely!

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