The Beauly wych elm. The ghost left by Dutch elm disease

THIS spectral image is, of course, not a standard photographic panorama. It’s a 3D representation created by Historic Environment Scotland from laser scans of the 800-year old wych or Scotch elm which stands at the entrance to Beauly priory. Its ghostliness is appropriate. For, according to recent research, this elm, which is believed to have been already there when the priory was founded, is only now five percent alive.

This elm thought to be the oldest in Europe has fallen prey to the fungal Dutch elm disease, which has withered many elms across the continent. A tiny bark beetle, which breeds in the bark of dying and dead elms, would have arrived by flight or blown by the wind, at the tree’s twigs, where it would have fed, infecting the tree with this fungus.

But the beetle cannot fly far. One of the problems is that humans have been helping it along its way. We humans, as is so often the case, are the super spreaders, and one of the ways it has been found, we have spread it, is through the transport of diseased firewood across the country. According to Dr Max Coleman of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh this fungus “evolved into a virulent strain as a direct result of the global trade in timber” and the aggressive form of the disease arrived in Britain on ”infected timber from America and has been spreading north ever since.”

HeraldScotland: Beauly Wych Elm, copyright Historic Environment Scotland

READ MORE: Fellowship of the rings. Why we must protect our ancient trees

More than 20 million trees died of the disease during the 1960s and 1970s. The North of Scotland has long been considered one of the last refuges of the elm. So significant is this that in 2019, the Last “Ent” of Affric, a lone elm whose remote location has protected it from disease, was named Scotland’s Tree of the Year..

One of the reasons we have this refuge is that the elm here are so spread out, there is no easy corridor for the beetles and the disease to travel down. The coolness of the climate, also acts against the spread of the beetle. But, of course, the climate is changing, and warmer years are believed to speed up the spread of the disease.

Max Coleman notes that radiocarbon dating of pollen shows that the wych elm has been growing in Scotland for around 9000 years. “Not only has it been here longer than people have inhabited Scotland, but it has also proved itself to be incredibly useful to us. An unusual quality of elm wood is that the fibres are interlocking. This makes wych elm resistant to splitting and yet flexible at the same time. As a consequence, elm has been the wood of choice for a range of specific uses including wheel construction, boat building, furniture making and archer’s bows”.

Hope remains for the elm species.Some are resistant and there are breeding programmes to create more resistant strains, for trees like the Beauly elm, there can be no rescue.

Historic Environment Scotland, earlier this year, announced that they were going to let the tree “decline with grace”. But before they did so, they took these scans. As Sarah Franklin, one of Historic Environment Scotland’s landscape managers, has put it, it is older than a lot of built monuments. It can be considered “a living archaeology”.

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