Rare elm trees could be about to make a comeback

A Sheffield resident and elm enthusiast has teamed up with Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust to kick-start an exciting initiative to trial disease-resistant elm trees at the Trust’s Greno Woods nature reserve in north Sheffield.

From being one of the UK’s most common trees before the 1960s, the English elm is now one of the UK’s rarest. All because of Dutch elm disease (DED), which has killed over 60 million trees in the UK since it arrived.

But now the elm tree may be starting its comeback with a new initiative to grow elm trees resistant to DED in Sheffield, as part of a national project to establish eight experimental plantations across the UK. Three saplings of eight varieties (24 in total) of DED-resistant elm trees will be planted in Greno Woods, on a small area of land provided by Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust, with the first planting taking place on Monday 19 February.

Greno Woods is an ancient woodland, rich in wildlife and full of historic interest. Covering 169 hectares, it is one of the Trust’s largest reserves and the only one it owns outright. This means that the wood provides a great location to trial the new varieties in a natural woodland setting in order study their shape and form as they mature.

Importantly, the specimens planted in Greno Woods will be monitored over a number of years to see which best suit local conditions and produce the healthiest trees most reminiscent of the old English elm. This may then lead to selected varieties being re-introduced across the local landscape.

A unique aspect of the Sheffield initiative is the community engagement that has made it possible. The project was crowdfunded and is the brainchild of local resident and elm enthusiast Paul Selby.

Paul, 36, said:

“I have been interested in elm trees since being a child. I remember being very sad to see some wonderful English elms at the bottom of my uncle’s garden die of the terrible Dutch elm disease. In 2014 I made a specific trip to Brighton to see the oldest remaining 400-year-old English elms in the world. And since December 2015 I have led the efforts to save the now famous Chelsea Road elm in Sheffield from the threat of felling by the controversial Streets Ahead programme.

“However, out of the bad can sometimes come some good. Through my work to save the Chelsea Road elm, I met Dr Herling, and together we came up with the idea for the Sheffield branch of the elm initiative. The local response has been wonderful, with nearly £700 raised in just two weeks to fund the project.”

Dr David Herling is the national lead for the project. The work to both protect and bring back the elm in the UK has been his life’s work. He said:

“The idea behind the eight experimental plantations is to establish a range of resistant elms across varying climate and soil conditions countrywide, from Exeter to Edinburgh. Above all, we want to make these new trees visible, so that all our potential stakeholders can make up their own minds about which are suitable for wide scale planting.

“The information and evidence gleaned from the eight plantations will then be used to inform the commercialization of the best new clones, so that one day, elms may once again become a familiar tree in the UK landscape. The partnership of the Sheffield community in this has been inspirational.”

The Trust’s Head of Conservation and Land Management, Roy Mosley, who led the efforts to prepare the Greno Woods site for the plantation, said:

“This is a really exciting project to be involved with. Elms are an important part of our natural heritage, so we’re really happy to be able to support an initiative to bring resistant elms back by providing a planting site and a commitment to look after them until they’re fully established.”