Next gen’ elms, allies of the rainforest
A successful community planting of 19 young trees in the remote northwest marks an important scientific breakthrough in biodiversity research and could potentially boost the protection of Scotland’s fragile temperate rainforest. So called ‘next generation’ plants, are being specially reared within the research facilities of the world-leading Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) in a quest to battle back against the 50-year scourge of Dutch elm disease.
Progeny of mature wych elms (Ulmus glabra) known to have survived in areas hit by the disease, these saplings have been bred through selective pollination in the wild and nurtured in the research institute’s large nursery. They are the result of innovative work, applying conventional propagation techniques alongside latest genotyping protocols to prove parental lineage. And, they offer a ray of hope for wider populations because they are the offspring of a small population of trees surviving in areas where the disease has run unchecked.
Research is still ongoing into exactly why some trees can either fight the disease, or have avoided becoming infected, perhaps by being unattractive to the beetles on which it travels. But, if this initiative is successful, it could start to reverse the devastation caused by the pathogen, which entered Scotland in the early 1970s.
The threat is growing in communities around Scotland as the disease continues to move north and west. Spread by tiny bark beetles, it is probably assisted by a combination of climate change and human intervention, when the insects hitch rides on vehicles or elm logs being transported.
Dr Max Coleman, an RBGE expert in elms, explained: “We have learned that when the disease arrives in a new area almost every mature elm will be lost. Therefore, the long-term aim is for natural regeneration and repopulation in regions, such as Assynt, that are suitable for elms.
“By creating genetically mixed populations at suitable sites, the ambition is that recovery will be sustained by natural regeneration, so the populations will begin to spread without further intervention. This is an exciting milestone, given that we are still barely one year into the Scottish Plant Recovery project, funded by the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund and managed by NatureScot. In all, we have 250 wych elm seedlings to plant out, which is a significant boost for a species so severely affected by disease.”
It is hoped the initiative will complement both the Scottish Government ambitions for rainforest recovery and the work of the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest to protect the rare and vulnerable temperate rainforest on the west coast. In recent months, community activists in Assynt have been working with the RBGE team to identify existing rainforest elms on limestone rock outcrops around Inchnadamph before planting the new stock.
Mandy Haggith, a poet and writer living in Assynt, is campaigning to raise awareness of the wych elms and the threat that they face from disease and also, perhaps, neglect. She explained: “Elms are too often forgotten by the people who plant trees, perhaps because they have given up on them. We aim to turn the tide on that thinking and get lots of them into the landscape as a symbol of hope. Thanks to funding from Scottish Forestry and John Muir Trust we have lots of community interest in our magnificent elms and working with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh brings an additional exciting dimension to the story.”
Noting the importance of such partnerships, Julie Stoneman, project manager for the Alliance for Scotland’s Rainforest, commented: “Temperate rainforests are every bit as important as their more famous tropical counterparts but are less well known. And, while elms are not a major component of our rainforest, in areas where soils are more lime-rich, such as in Assynt, they can have a substantial presence. If research and horticulture can bring us disease resistant plants, then that is a considerable boost to our overall effort. By pooling amazing skills, expertise and passion, we can make a significant difference to protecting the future of one of our most precious habitats”.
Photography by Chris Puddephatt.
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