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The Lonely Elm Tree

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Posted: Wednesday 21st November 2018 by WildBlog

By Joe McSorley, Avon Wildlife Trust Living Landscapes Manager

Once upon a time, not so long ago, elm trees were a common sight in our local woodlands standing majestically alongside ancient oaks and veteran ash trees.

This changed about 50 years ago with the advent of Dutch elm disease, so called because most of the research was undertaken in the Netherlands, though the disease is believed to have come across with timber from Canada. This virulent fungal disease of elm trees destroyed many millions of trees and although a few trees survived they are now lonely specimens compared to what we used to have.

Part of the problem with Dutch elm disease is that our most common elm, the English elm, is derived from a single source, thought to be from trees imported by the Romans to support vines which they cultivated widely in southern England. This lack of genetic diversity makes elm trees vulnerable to the disease and with little resistance within the population.

Where elms did grow, they were often tall and straight and highly valued for their timber. The tight grain means that it’s very resistant to splitting and was often used where wood products were subjected to heavy persistent pressure or exposure to water. Boats, wagon wheels and chairs were often made from elm, and in Bristol before metal was widely available, hollowed out elm wood was used for water and sewage pipes.

As well as adding an extra layer to our woodland biodiversity, elm trees provide a vital wildlife resource. Many of our woodland birds eat elm seeds and the leaves are favoured by the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white spotted pinion. Perhaps most importantly, elm leaves are the larval food plant of the distinctive but elusive white-letter hairstreak butterfly, a species that has seriously declined over the last 50 years alongside the loss of our elm trees.

Some elms have managed to survive, particularly in coastal areas where their ability to cope with saltier air made them an ideal promenade decoration, particularly on the south coast. Being near the coast also makes it an unfavourable habitat for the beetles that carry the fungal disease from tree to tree.

Closer to home, there are a few surviving elm trees in sheltered places tucked away in some of our local woodlands. Large specimens tend to develop strong buttresses and grow straight as they seek the light source above. Look out for tall straight trees with “streaky” bark. The definitive way to tell an elm is to look for leaves either on the tree or on the ground. Elm trees don’t have symmetrical leaves so where the stalk joins the leaf, one side of the leaf will be slightly offset from the other.

In our culture elms were often thought to be a melancholy tree and are often associated with death. There’s an old story that this is because the trees have a bad habit of dropping dead branches without warning so be careful if you stop and stand under one! Elm wood was also the preferred choice for coffins.
Why not take a winter stroll around Browne’s Folly and Priors Wood where the majesty and tranquillity of the woodlands can soothe your soul and where you can try to seek out one of the few large elms that still survive.

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