The Great British Elm Experiment is a project which sets out to challenge the view that “elms have had it!” The Holy Grail is to reintroduce native British elm trees to our countryside if surviving and naturally disease resistant trees can be identiﬁed. Alongside this objective experimentation is ongoing with new and hopefully resistant hybrid elms. We are partnering The Conservation Foundation in this drive to revive and maintain 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: the Romans used elm to construct water pipes and elm has had an important role in 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: in addition countless other elms have been lost across the world. Hybrid resistant trees are being developed which hopefully open up a future for the species but the quest to save our native varieties has not yet been abandoned. A signiﬁcant number of mature native trees have in fact survived the disease outbreak for reasons unknown, some of which trees could have innate genetic resistance. Experimentation is underway to establish whether this is indeed the case.
The project has propagated saplings from healthy British parent trees of sixty years and older that predate the current wave of Dutch Elm 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 on a wider scale. Over the last 15 years 3,000 of these saplings have been planted out with a survival rate of around 50%. Numerous schools, local community organisations and landowners are taking part in the experiment and have planted out their own elm saplings.
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. The increasing incidence of new tree diseases in other species in recent years – in particular the potentially devastating threat to our ash population from chalara (ash dieback) - has given ever greater importance to a full understanding and appreciation of the trees and woodlands we have left, how we can protect them and even expand them for future generations.
Our Trust is now supporting a new initiative – the online interactive Elm Map. Despite the huge loss of native elms there are still a surprising number of healthy survivors around in parks, gardens and the countryside. With the help of enthusiasts, the goal is to discover the current state of the elm population and support Dutch Elm Disease researchers. Elm sightings can be logged by uploading photographs of the tree with its location and as much other information as possible. Postings are moderated by a number of elm experts who will identify the species. Visit www.conservationfoundation.co.uk/elms-map
A post note about identifying Elms. They 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 – see illustration below.