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Elm hope

Author:  Mandy Haggith
Last Updated:  14/06/2024
Sunlight streaming through the canopy of an elm.

Sunlight streaming through the canopy of an elm.

Mandy Haggith

When a well-loved tree succumbs to disease, it is hard not to mourn its loss, just as we mourn those people close to us who die before their time.

But when that disease becomes an epidemic and decimates an entire tree population, we need to find strategies to retain hope in the face of change at a landscape level. This is the case with elms in general, and wych elm (Ulmus glabra) in particular in Scotland.

When the magnificent wych elm at the gateway of Beauly Priory was dying of Dutch elm disease in 2022, I was asked to write a farewell poem to it as part of an art project to celebrate its long life, what it had meant to the local community and its wider significance as the oldest elm in Europe. On the back of that I was commissioned to write a book, The Lost Elms, and as I live 100 miles further north-west in Assynt, my proposal was from the perspective of what I termed ‘a zone of hope’ beyond the frontier of the disease. But in the intervening period, the disease has arrived, whether due to climate change bringing north the hot summer conditions that the elm bark beetles need to fly and spread the disease-causing fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi, or via firewood, or on spore-infected chainsaws, we can’t be sure.

The fantastic structure of an elm trunk.

The fantastic structure of an elm trunk.

Max Coleman and Mandy Haggith planting elms during a community event in Assynt.

Max Coleman and Mandy Haggith planting elms during a community event in Assynt.

What we can be certain of, however, is that some of our beautiful mature elms are now doomed and I cannot just sit back scribbling and do nothing to try to protect them. There is one I pass almost daily, on a neighbour’s croft, as elegant a tree as any I’ve seen anywhere. There’s a giant in the Culag community wood, festooned with epiphytes, polypod ferns, lichens and mosses, an architype of a rainforest tree. There are many mighty specimens hanging in unlikely places, on crags, in steep ravines, growing out of rock faces and gracing the banks of remote lochans. The Assynt elm population is rich in characters that it will be really sad to lose. How, then, can we face the decision about what to do about them with hope and not succumb to the all-too-prevalent despair and grief of yet another environmental tragedy?

Sources of hope

Elm is symbolic of death in many cultures, but also of the potential for regeneration after death and I’ve found hope about elm coming at me from two very different directions. The first is in local discussions about how we might protect them and slow the disease’s advance by avoiding transportation of elm firewood, watching for infection, limbing or felling promptly, burning, chipping or debarking infected logs and disinfecting fungus-infected chainsaws. We’ve created an Assynt elm project, led by the Culag Community Woodland Trust and with financial support from Scottish Forestry and the John Muir Trust, and practical support from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Woodland Trust Scotland and the Assynt Field Club, amongst others. We’re using art, poetry, photography and fun events to encourage our community to celebrate and treasure our lovely elms, so lots of local people are involved now, appreciating and watching out for the trees.

The second source of hope has been inspired by a team from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) led by Max Coleman, which is propagating wych elms that have survived waves of Dutch elm disease in the south of Scotland and planting them out in several places, including Assynt, in order to increase the genetic diversity and potential resilience of our elm population. In January we had a community elm planting event, with our primary school children making portraits and then planting out local provenance elm seedlings plus the first of the RGBE’s potentially resilient elms. We held hands to form an 8-metre ring around this seedling to imagine how big it might be if it grows to the girth of the Brahan Elm – an optimistic circle if ever there was one!

Instead of worrying about the death of individual trees, hope has been sown by thinking like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold urges us to do in his classic essay, taking a long-term and landscape-scale perspective of elm’s entire rainforest ecosystem. The disease may yet take many of our elms, but those that die will generate deadwood, from which a host of other species will benefit, and as long as we have planted lots more out around the landscape and allowed natural regeneration from mature trees, the population as a whole will survive and thrive through future, more resilient generations.


This article was taken from Issue 205 Summer 2024 of the ARB Magazine, which is available to view free to members by simply logging in to the website and viewing your profile area.