Celebrated survivors of Dutch elm disease come under threat

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A renewed outbreak of Dutch elm disease is threatening one of Britain's best-loved tree groups.

The thousands of elms of Brighton and Hove are not quite as celebrated as the old oaks of Windsor Great Park or the beeches of the Chilterns. But they are among the most remarkable trees in Britain.

The elms are the only large group to have survived the ravages of Dutch elm disease, the beetle-borne infection which, since the 1970s, has removed millions of elms from the English landscape where they had been one of the most characteristic trees.

Planted by the Victorians and Edwardians, in so many varieties that they have come to comprise the national elm collection, Brighton's elms survived because they were protected by the bare South Downs on one side and the sea on the other - and also by the vigilance of the city's gardeners.

A vigorously-enforced control programme spotted any diseased trees, and pruned out the infection before it could spread.

But a renewed outbreak of Dutch elm disease in nearby Southwick and Shoreham, which are adminstered by the neighbouring Adur District Council, has emerged. The trees are all on private land, and until recently Adur removed such trees free of charge; but the cash-strapped, small council says it can no longer afford to do this.

At the weekend a group of concerned tree experts came together in a day of action to do the job themselves, for nothing, although removing the 30 infected elms they have located on 10 different sites would normally cost thousands of pounds in contractors' fees.

Keith Hunter, general manager of the local firm Connick Tree Care, sent two crews to Southwick to tackle the work, waiving his fee.

"A lot of the staff live in the area and feel they want to do something proactive," he said. "People need to understand the importance of these elm trees. The collection is of huge national and historical importance."

His call was echoed by Ray Strong, a retired arboricultural manager. "This unique collection includes the most extensive list of elm species in prime condition to be seen anywhere," he said.

"This has been achieved by a great deal of volunteer work and co-operation between the local authorities over many years. The cost of saving these trees is a few thousand pounds, but failing to save them will incur costs of several millions."

Another of the organisers, John Harraway of Harraway Tree Services said: "This is not just tree-hugging. This is a heck of a lot of the remaining elms of Britain, a genetic resource that would be gone, and there would be a huge financial implications if the trees were lost."

Were they infected themselves, Brighton's elms would all have to be cut down, and as they number between 15,000 and 17,000, this would be a Herculean task and vastly expensive.

The weekend's felling was done with the co- operation of the owners of the properties where the infected trees were growing and with the backing of Brighton and Hove and Adur councils.

"Adur has experienced financial difficulties so the day is to pay them back for their efforts," said Rob Greenland, of Brighton & Hove City Council's arboricultural unit.

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