'Super elms' begin to fill the gaps in English landscape

Saplings are to be propagated from specimens that survived when 20 million trees perished. Planted nationwide, they may transform the landscape again

A A A

The elm, once a common and striking feature of our countryside, may flourish once more, defeating the blight of Dutch elm disease that laid waste to millions of specimens. Certain trees have been discovered unscathed in areas where most others were wiped out, prompting the hope that these may hold the secret to immunity.

The charity Conservation Foundation is to launch the "Great British Elm Experiment" later this year, with the help of schools. The volunteers will be planting more than 2,000 saplings propagated from specimens that have escaped Dutch elm disease. The saplings will be planted at sites across Britain and encouraged to grow naturally. After around 15 years it will be clear whether it is their apparent immunity that has helped them to withstand the blight.

The scientific community is divided over the likelihood of an immunity to Dutch elm disease. Dr Joan Webber of the Forestry Commission says the opinion of researchers leans more towards the idea that the elms survived because of external factors, such as climate or location, rather than because of some other inherent quality.

The hopes of some experts have been pinned on hybrid elms, bred by specialists to be highly resistant to the disease. One such tree, the Sapporo Autumn Gold, has now been thriving for 30 years. The hybrid has Asiatic heritage and does not resemble native elms such as the wych elm.

The Conservation Foundation is initiating a nationwide search for the examples of the Sapporo Autumn Gold, recording their success in resisting the disease.

Some experts in the natural world, however, are critical of the Sapporo Autumn Gold. According to Andrew Brookes of Butterfly Conservation, it does not look at home in the British landscape.

Traditional elms were once a prominent feature of the countryside, beloved for their beautiful shape and appearance. In the late Sixties, the trees could be found from the South Coast to Scotland, from East Anglia to the North-west. Then a devastating new strain of Dutch elm disease swept the countryside, and over the next decade the UK lost 20 million of its estimated 30 million specimens.

The tall and graceful trees are valued not only for their beauty. Elm wood's interlocking grain renders it resistant to splitting, making it a favourite material for cabinet-makers. Elms are also a crucial habitat and sole source of food for the elusive white-letter hairstreak butterfly. Butterfly Conservation is running trials on American and European elm cultivars which they believe may adapt well to the English countryside.

In the meantime, many environmental and countryside enthusiasts will be hoping fervently for the success of the Conservation Foundation's experiment. The foundation's hope that it has indeed identified an immunity to Dutch elm disease may be our only chance of seeing native elms thriving naturally in the UK again.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test