Island populations are often thought to be more susceptible to the loss of genetic diversity as a consequence of limited population size and genetic drift, greater susceptibility to detrimental stochastic events and low levels of immigration. However the geographic isolation of islands may create refuges for native crop species whose genetic diversity is threatened from the genetic erosion occurring in mainland areas as a result of crop-wild gene flow and genetic swamping. Many UK islands remain uncharacterised in terms of plant genetic diversity. In this study we compared the genetic diversity of mainland populations and landraces of Trifolium repens with wild populations collected from the islands surrounding the UK, including the island of Hirta in the St Kildan archipelago. Individuals from St Kilda represent a unique conservation resource, with populations both highly differentiated from UK mainland populations and genetically distinct from cultivated varieties, whilst able to retain diversity through limited human influence on the islands. In contrast, there is relative genetic similarity of wild UK populations to cultivated forms highlighted in mainland populations, but with geographic barriers preventing complete homogenisation of the mainland UK genepool. We underline the need for conservation priorities to include common species that are threatened by gene flow from cultivation, and draw attention to the potential of islands to preserve natural levels of genetic diversity.
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