The elm tree can return to the British countryside, given a helping hand, according to a new report.
More than 20 million trees died during the 1960s and 1970s from Dutch elm disease.
In the aftermath, the elm was forgotten, except among a handful of enthusiasts. They’ve been breeding elite elms that can withstand attack.
The research is showing promise and there is reason for hope, said the Future Trees Trust charity.
Report author, Karen Russell, said mature specimens have been identified that are hundreds of years old. They’ve escaped the epidemic. And a new generation of elm seedlings are being bred, which appear to be resistant to the disease.
“The current state is that we know a lot about where the mature trees are. We know more than we’ve ever done about the opportunities of research possibilities,” she said. “With the right people in the right place and the funding we can put elm back in the landscape.”
What is the disease and what havoc did it wreak?
When Dutch elm disease swept through southern Britain in the 1960s and 70s, over 90% of elms were lost. That’s an estimated 25 million trees. The disease, caused by a rogue fungus, is still present in the countryside. It’s spreading north, though it has not yet reached parts of Scotland.
Returning mature trees to the landscape requires a new generation of trees that can fight off attack.
Some European countries have already made progress in crossing “elite elms” with local elms. This is to create trees with resistance that can be planted in parks, towns and the countryside.
How can we bring back the elm in the UK?
The report has brought together much of the work done by the many elm enthusiasts and experts across the UK. Tim Rowland, the chief executive of Future Trees Trust says “It’s clear that there’s a lot of love for elm. Our report shows that there’s much to be hopeful about,” he said.
“We now need to work together with all the other stakeholders to ensure the brightest possible hope for its return.”
Botanist Dr Max Coleman of The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh said the research is “looking promising”. But is in the early stages, because the new elms are still young.
He said the return of the elm is even more important given that ash trees face ash dieback. Many Ash trees will be lost, which is bad news for the lichens which grow on the bark of both the ash and the elm.
“These specialised fungi are running out of habitat as suitable trees disappear from the landscape,” he said.
“Planting a new generation of elms that are likely to grow to maturity will help to provide new habitat for this fungi.”
Where do you find surviving elms?
Young elms can still be seen growing in hedgerows, perishing from Dutch elm disease long before they reach maturity. When it comes to mature trees, a few ancient survivors can be found if you know what you’re looking for. Karen Russell, a scientist and chartered forester, took me to see two mature elm trees in rural Cambridgeshire.
Among the largest surviving elms in the UK, they are marked on maps of the local village dating back to 1889. No-one knows how they have survived the disease, where others around them have fallen. “Until we look at these trees, we won’t find the answers,” she said.