The ancients are arising.
Growing Better Connections have been collecting seed from an ancient Wych elm (Ulmus glabra) tree near Eglwyswrw that is estimated to be at least three to four hundred years old. Like a time served veteran it has survived the Dutch elm disease that claimed most of its kin, and more storms, droughts and icey blasts than any memory or record can recall. Through its sedentary life the barns, houses, lanes and yards around it have been built, razed and replaced; at least once and maybe a couple of times over. It has silently witnessed horses become tractors, planes fly overhead and cables interlace its roots and branches.
From a hollow in the stem, owls preside over a parliament of birds that frequent it’s branches and nest in the ivy that entwines its mighty boughs. A plethora of insects will be using it for food and shelter, possibly even the now inevitably rare and elusive white-letter hairstreak butterfly whose caterpillars rely on elm leaves.
The seed was collected by Adam Dawson of Growing Better Connections working with Bobby Simmons of RS Arboriculture, who supplied a mobile elevated work platform. They both agreed that it is the largest elm that they had seen in the area and the biggest Adam had seen outside Scotland; where the fungal disease, which is carried by flying beetles, was kept at bay by the mountains.
The seed has been shared among small local tree nurseries to propagate and the progeny will be reintroduced into the Pembrokeshire and South Wales countryside. With such a strong parent they stand a higher chance than most of resisting Dutch elm disease and of being well adapted to the increasingly frequent extreme weather caused by climate change. Their ancestry will make them particularly likely to be well suited to the conditions of this area. The nurseries have agreed to give back 20% of the final stock from this seed for community or charitable tree planting schemes.
Simon Richards and Lance Beaton have established a local provenance tree nursery at Scolton Manor with the help of dedicated volunteers. They run educational events as well as selling trees to the public, and are keen to supply more unusual and overlooked species for planting locally. If you would like to buy saplings from this elm then they should be available from 2024 onwards. Other trees and plants are available there now.
It is hoped that some of these elms can be planted to replace ash trees that are currently being lost to die back. Until the 1970s the elms were as common in our countryside as ash trees are now. Ant Rogers of Pembrokeshire Nature Partnership was highly supportive of this idea and what is provisionally being called, “The Pheonix Project”: out of the ashes arise the elms.
We are grateful to the owners of this tree for permitting us to access it on private land, and to collect seed, we will be giving some of the trees back to them to plant in their hedges. We would be interested to hear about other ancient trees in the area, to help record and potentially collect seed from them. If you know of any then please contact firstname.lastname@example.org and include photos to help with identification and estimating age.