Foresters warn Dutch elm disease is back: Epidemic halts return of the tree that once defined rural England. Steve Connor reports

DUTCH ELM disease, which destroyed more than 20 million trees at the height of its last epidemic 20 years ago, is making a comeback by reducing the majestic English elm to the status of a stumpy shrub.

Forestry researchers have detected an upsurge in the disease - a fungus that can be passed from one tree to another by a beetle - in 20 elm plots planted in 1977 in the aftermath of the last epidemic which wiped out two thirds of the country's elms.

The disease has on average doubled since 1991 in southern England. In one plot the proportion of trees affected by Dutch elm disease increased from 30 per cent in 1991 to 79 per cent in 1993. At another plot, the disease climbed from 10 per cent to 36 per cent. Scientists believe the cause of the new epidemic is the recent warm summers and dry weather, which have exacerbated the effects of the fungus - which blocks the elm's water system - and helped the elm bark beetle to breed faster.

Dutch elm disease in the Seventies killed off many trees but felling left the roots able to regenerate. Many of the elms have since grown big enough for the elm beetle to breed in its bark again, Brian Greig, a forest pathologist at the Forestry Commission, said.

'The elm has made a remarkable recovery since the 1970s, but now it's being attacked by the disease once more. The beetle population is already high because of previous hot summers.'

The English elm once defined the rural landscape perhaps more than any other tree. It rarely, if ever, sets seed and spreads by producing suckers from its roots which can grow into individual trees.

It is thought that all the English elms, which are virtually identical genetically, are the descendants of one tree introduced into pre-Roman Britain from the continent. Their genetic uniformity made them highly susceptible to the fungus that causes Dutch elm disease, first identified in Holland in 1919.

'People described the epidemic of Dutch elm disease as a major ecological disaster after it destroyed more than 20 million trees. Now we are in a situation where the offspring of these trees are reaching a size where they are becoming a significant component of the countryside again and the great pity is they are being wiped out,' Mr Greig said. 'It is also a great pity that English elms are becoming akin to a shrub rather than the great majestic tree of the past.'

Mr Greig said that this year's survey is not complete but he 'fully expects' the upsurge in Dutch elm disease to continue because the epidemic is cumulative from one year to the next. 'There will be some areas where the disease kills out most of the new regeneration. The trend of increase will undoubtedly continue because of what's happened in previous years.'

The last 15 years of prolific regeneration of the English elm was a 'honeymoon period' that now appears to be over, Mr Greig said. 'This is the first generation of elm to be attacked since the major epidemic of the Seventies.'

(Photograph and graph omitted)

Suggested Topics
News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
musicHunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original  manuscripts
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
lifeAiming to show breasts in a non-sexual way for cancer awareness
New Articles
i100... while following the referendum
New Articles
i100... with this review
Voices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special
tvNick Frost, Natalie Gumede and Michael Troughton step up
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Beard, Ben Schnetzer, Douglas Booth and Jack Farthing in ‘The Riot Club’
filmReview: Sheer nastiness of Riot Club takes you aback
Arts and Entertainment
tvBut something’s not quite right
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week