Page last updated at 23:16 GMT, Saturday, 21 August 2010 00:16 UK

The decline of the English elm tree

Watch the film in full

By Mark Seddon

A fresh outbreak of Dutch elm disease is threatening the existence of the UK's remaining English elm trees.

Most people under the age of 40 will never have seen the elm landscapes so loved by Constable or Turner.

They may have read John Betjeman's eulogies to the English elm, and might even have heard of the ancient elm under which John Wesley reputedly preached in Stony Stratford. (I am currently growing an elm sapling, taken from that great tree before it was finally removed a few years ago).

But they won't have actually seen any of these wonderful trees that once graced the British countryside.

I get gasps of excitement when they [visitors] see the large English elm, because they haven't seen an elm since their childhood and they look at them [the trees] as if they're going back into the past
Robert Hill-Snook, Brighton Pavilion head gardener

For they were wiped out in their many millions from the 1970s, when a virulent strain of a fungal disease arrived on imported Canadian logs and fanned out from ports in Bristol, Southampton and London killing between 25-30 million trees.

Dutch elm disease, named because much of the research into it was conducted in Holland, soon overwhelmed the English elm, a tree that once towered over our hedgerows.

Its misfortune was to have been introduced by the Romans to prop up their vines, and be descended from the same root stock. While other varieties of elm demonstrated some resistance, the English elm had none.

Carol Ann Duffy reads her poem The English Elms

"It's caused by a fungus which is carried around by a beetle," explained Mary Parker, Dutch elm disease control officer for East Sussex County Council.

"They feed on the twigs - as they do so they bite through the bark and the spores that are on their back get in under the bark, travel down the tree and the water vessels, and as they do so it causes a reaction and kills the tree."

Scientific research conducted over the past 20 years by Andrew Brookes of Portsmouth University and Eric Collin of Cemagref in France, suggests that no native British elm is resistant to Dutch elm disease.

That the elm hung on in any number in Brighton, Eastbourne, Seaford and parts of East Sussex, was very much down to the forward thinking and swift action by elm specialist pioneers such as John Gibbs and local authorities over the past 40 years.

Immediate sanitation felling, and pruning out of the disease, saved the English elm from near extinction.

Few survivors

Today, when people see Brighton's famous trees - the Preston Park Twins, reputedly the oldest remaining English elm in the world, or the hollow veteran at Brighton Pavilion, which was planted in 1776, the year of American independence - they simply cannot believe their eyes.

"I get gasps of excitement when they [visitors] see the large English elm," the pavilion's head gardener Robert Hill-Snook told me, "because they haven't seen an elm since their childhood and they look at them [the trees] as if they're going back into the past."

Brighton is home to the National Elm Collection, and the council continues to safeguard these very special trees.

The variety, rarity and age profiles of the elm population of the town's Preston Park should surely make this public space a candidate for Unesco World Heritage Status.

The English Elms: Carol Ann Duffy
Elm leaves
Seven Sisters in Tottenham,
long gone, except for their names, were English elms.

Others stood at the edge of farms, twinned with the shapes of clouds
like green rhymes;
or cupped the beads of the rain
in their leaf palms;
or glowered, grim giants, warning of storms.

Aside from East Sussex and the Isle of Man, the only recorded English elm survivors in Britain are two remarkable trees in an isolated spot in the Cotswolds, and an old tree that graces a graveyard near Dervaig on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

But this has been a very bad year for Dutch elm disease, possibly one of the worst since the mid 1970s.

To the east of Brighton, in the beautiful elm landscapes of the South Downs, almost every hedgerow is showing the tell tale signs of the disease; yellowing and browning leaves, and rapid die back.

The once relatively disease-free Friston Forest is riddled with Dutch elm disease, and it is spreading rapidly.

The work of the local authorities, of countless tree lovers, specialists and the vigilance of the public over 40 years, is at very real risk of being undone.

The hot, dry weather may be one factor, but there are others.

Strict legislation

Last year, charges for sanitation felling were brought in for the first time in rural areas.

Of course some landowners can afford to pay for 50% of the tree felling costs, but it has become apparent that some irresponsible landowners are letting diseased and dead trees stand, spreading the infection.

Then there is increased red tape, and the problems associated with those whose ultimate responsibility it is to police what is a Dutch elm disease control area, where strict legislation governs tree removal and disposal.

Gay Biddlecombe
Because the Forestry Commission have seemed to do nothing about the disease in the forest, my trees have now got the disease
Gay Biddlecombe
Friston Forest resident

Then there are the costs. East Sussex County Council is contributing £249,000 this year to the battle against Dutch elm disease.

But much local anger is being directed towards the Forestry Commission.

One of those who believe the commission has largely given up this year, is Friston Forest resident Gay Biddlecombe.

"I've got five elm trees in my garden and because the Forestry Commission have seemed to do nothing about the disease in the forest, my trees have now got the disease," she says.

The Forestry Commission told Newsnight that it is about to send more teams in to tackle the outbreak that threatens elms - not only in the forest - but in an immediate seven-mile radius.

But it also says that the future is not bright for a healthy elm population in the Friston Forest area.

What is needed, say elm experts, is an emergency sanitation programme of tree felling, running through the winter into next year, and working from the coast up through the valleys.

Nationally, budget restraints could lead to further pressure to cut costs - or impose them - thus threatening these emblematic trees which are woven into our very history and culture.

Watch Mark Seddon's film in full on Tuesday 24 August 2010 at 2230 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.



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SEE ALSO
Dutch elm hits tree control zone
05 Aug 10 |  Sussex
Hope of beating Dutch elm disease
15 Jun 10 |  England
Disease resistant elms nurtured
14 Jun 10 |  Nature
2,000 healthy elms grown in Essex
12 Jun 10 |  Today
The tree that shaped Britain
07 May 10 |  Magazine
Are elm trees making a comeback?
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