British Waterways is planting 100 native elms trees by canals and rivers across the country to enhance the nation’s natural waterside heritage.
The elm, which was a favourite riverside subject of 19th century British artist John Constable, has a long-standing relationship with Britain’s canals and rivers as their timber withstands wet conditions, making them the traditional material for making lock gates for more than 200 years.
Before the 1960s, millions of native elms had thrived in our soils for centuries. However, more than 90% of them were wiped out in a decade by a deadly fungus, Dutch elm disease, which is spread by the elm bark beetle.
British Waterways has sourced the elm saplings from The Conservation Foundation, which has taken cuttings from mature parent elms found growing in the British countryside, which appear to have resisted Dutch elm disease. The saplings, which are 50cm tall, will be planted by volunteers working alongside British Waterways’ environment team.
Dr Mark Robinson, British Waterways’ ecologist, explains: “The survival of some of the UK’s native elms is a good example of natural selection in action. By propagating and replanting those that have survived, we can start to bring back this majestic tree, the English elm to our country.
“Elms are important habitat for hundreds of lichen and invertebrate species, including the rare white-letter hairstreak butterfly. Elm wood is also particularly good at resisting water and was traditionally popular for boat building, barge hulls, bridge foundations, cartwheels and even the first urban water pipes. Due to the devastation of the species, we no longer use elm wood to make our lock gates. However, we can help to bring back this much missed and valuable species, and maybe one day they can be used as lock gates once again.”