The Elm

(by RW Standing)

There is far more to history than knightly battles, wealthy tyrants, toiling peasants, and bad harvests. Even in this coastal plain district, with its intensive cultivation, and tightly packed Saxon villages, nature had its niche. This must have been especially so when rivers spread wide over floodplains, ancient pastures prevailed, and plowlands were not made chemically inert.

For anyone who knew Sussex upwards of thirty years ago, there is one vast new change wrought by nature, fostered by Man, and that is the almost entire loss of our majestic elm tree. Specimens of up to 150 feet tall have been recorded. The first great extinction took place in Sussex beginning in 1974 with its full force coming into effect in 1976. Barely a mature elm could be found locally after that, although life remained in the roots, and suckers sent up from them subsequently restored some elm hedgerows with seemingly vigorous young trees. That is until this year. Now it would appear that endemic disease has returned in force, and it may be seen that where trees are not already gaunt and dead, most have their crowns tipped with brown. Is this the final extinction?

The common lowland elm, Ulmus procera, no doubt formed part of the ancient natural forests of this country. But as woods were managed, and land was put under cultivation the tree became confined to hedgerows between the fields. Although susceptible to grazing, its habit of sending up vast amounts of suckers, made it the predominate tree in this area. With the enclosure of common fields over several centuries through to the early 19th century, and the planting of thorn fences or hedges, the tree was able to spread around every close where permitted. Local manorial custom of hedgebote, was a lifeline for the common villager, enabling him to take wood from these trees for fuel and repair of buildings. Their resistance to salt winds meant they could be found close to the sea, becoming sculpted by the elements, to lean eastwards as if bending before a constant breeze.

Other uses for the elm, was such as the seats of chairs; hubs of cart wheels; boat keels; coffins; heads of mallets, and anywhere where a resistance to splitting was required.

When we see photographs of leafy lanes that have since become virtual motorways, and shaded village streets, it is almost certainly the elm with its understorey of other shrubby species, that were in the cameras view but are now gone.

The disease that has caused this depredation came from Asia and was first identified in Holland about 1917, hence the name Dutch Elm Disease. It affected the Dutch strain of elm first, but on arriving in this country in 1927 caused only limited harm to the English Elm and its varieties. The disease has as its host the elm beetle, which on its own account was a pest which the tree had long lived with, but a combination of the two with a more deadly strain of the pestilence would prove too much. This is what happened fifty years later with a reintroduction of new strains from America in the 1960s that are still with us. Nature in this country is no longer protected by a wide ocean, and is everyday under assault from alien introductions cast ashore by thoughtless travellers.

The autumn, or as our American cousins say, the Fall, will never be the same again without those clouds of bright yellow from our native elm, wrought by those occasional good-natured seasons of yesterday. RW Standing

RW Standing

August 2003