Great British Elm Experiment
Leaves of the English elm
Over 250 schools are participating
Wych elm (Ulmus glabra)
The Great British Elm Experiment is a project with the ultimate objective of reintroducing native British elm trees to our countryside. We are partnering The Conservation Foundation in the drive to revive interest in the elm before it becomes a largely forgotten species.
Elm trees had iconic status in the British countryside and are immortalised in poetry and in the great landscape paintings of Constable and others. They were the principal hedgerow trees alongside oaks and ashes and had numerous practical uses – from the Roman use of elm for water pipes through to the manufacture of furniture and even coffins! They had a unique place in the ecosystem.
Since the 1960s Dutch elm disease has ravaged the British elm population with around fifteen million trees lost and countless more across the world. Hybrid “resistant” trees have been developed but they are not native and do not sit happily in the British countryside. A significant number of native trees have, however, survived the disease outbreak for reasons unknown, one of which may be innate genetic resistance. The experiment is to establish whether this is indeed the case.
The project is initially focusing on propagating saplings from healthy parent trees of sixty years and older that predate the current wave of the disease. By planting out and monitoring these saplings it should in time be possible to establish whether there are disease resistant strains which could lead to their subsequent reintroduction.
Schools (around 250 to date), local community organisations and landowners are signing up to take part in the experiment and plant out their own elm saplings. We see the work with schools as being particularly
English elm (Ulmus procera)
significant: in addition to children experiencing planting out and caring for their elms, the activity will form part of a wider educational package teaching the importance of trees generally both here in the UK and worldwide.
There has been considerable interest in The Great British Elm Experiment in the national media. We hope this will in time lead on to a wider programme to encourage ongoing scientific research into Dutch elm disease and to provide an international forum for elm enthusiasts.
Elms tend to hybridise freely, making identification of individual species difficult. There are three recognised native elms – English elm (Ulmus procera), Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) and Smooth Leaved elm (Ulmus minor). Their leaves share common characteristics – they are double toothed and are asymmetrical at their base.
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