In a remote north-west corner of Scotland, the battle is on to protect a population of over a hundred wych elm trees deemed of “national significance” as Dutch elm disease closes in.

The fight involves not just protection, said Mandy Haggith, one of the small army of defenders, but also planting new trees “as a symbol of hope”.

“Don’t give up on elms,” she said, “Let’s plant elm – and get lots of them in the landscape so there’s more chance of there being resilient individuals that will survive the disease if it does come.”

Elms, she noted, “ have been forgotten” by tree planters. “We’ve had a few new woodland planting schemes in Assynt. But none of them have got any elm in them because people had sort of given up on elm thinking, 'It’s just going to get a disease, don’t bother.'”

The beetle-borne fungal disease, which grows in the water-conducting cells of the tree, blocking them and causing wilting and death, is considered one of the world's most deadly tree diseases. The fear is that it could soon reach Assynt’s elms, a population that Elm author RH Richens described as both very important and the most northwesterly.

The Herald: Assynt wych elm at Liath BhadAssynt wych elm at Liath Bhad (Image: Chris Puddephatt)

Two years ago, in the Black Isle, the 800-year-old Beauly elm, believed to be the oldest wych elm in Europe, died following infection by the disease.

But there are many survivors still out there. In 2019 an isolated veteran elm, called the Last Ent of of Affric, was named Scottish Tree of the Year and became a figurehead of efforts to fight Dutch elm disease.

Ms Haggith, a member of the Culag Community Woodland Trust observed: ““Wych elm is our native elm in Scotland – and people have mistakenly thought it doesn’t get Dutch elm disease. But that’s not true. It’s just that the beetle that transmits the disease needs warm temperatures so now that the temperatures in summer are getting hotter and the beetle is spreading further.”

“All elms are susceptible. Except there are the occasional individual that does seem to be resistant in some way and the scientists don’t seem to understand why but they’re working on it.”

The disease has been edging northwards for some time. Imported accidentally into the UK from Canada in the 1960s, it spread rapidly and was in Scotland within ten years of its arrival.


The Herald: Ardvar Meallard wych elm in AssyntArdvar Meallard wych elm in Assynt (Image: Chris Puddephatt)

Aware of its threat, the Assynt Elm Project, led by Culag Community Woodland Trust and with funding support from John Muir Trust and Forestry Scotland, has organized a series of events – including a tree-planting ceremony in which the local primary school and other volunteers will plant saplings that have been grown from collected local elm seed by a community nursery.

They also hope to plant a 'resilient' seeding from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh's breeding programme.  The plan, said Haggith, is to plant them as “symbols of hope for the future of elm”.

Key tThe keylowing the spread is destroying or preventing the transport of elm wood and its bark. While the beetles cannot travel very far, their transport on logs and through saplings, crates and ,mulching bark accelerated the transmission.

“If anyone has got firewood elm lugs in their wood store they could be harbouring the grubs of the beetle, so we’re encouraging everybody over this winter to burn your elm logs,” said Ms Haggith. “That’s one of the messages: try to not move elm around too much because it could be spreading the disease on the firewood, unless the bark has been ripped off.”

The Assynt community is also trying to learn from places in the UK where elms have clung on, or been protected by strategic felling.

Among these is Edinburgh, which Ms Haggith said, is one of the “real success stories” in the UK. For instance, on my own local Leith Links around a third of the trees are elm. “In Edinburgh,” she said, “they have had what they call sanitary felling, which is felling out any trees that look like they are getting the disease. The trees are taken down and wood destroyed.”


The Herald: Inchnadamph wych elm in AssyntInchnadamph wych elm in Assynt (Image: Chris Puddephatt)

Hence, in Assynt, a key strategy is to ensure that locals know how to identify elms and the disease- so that any infected limb can be cut off. 

What is also remarkable about the elms in Assynt is that people know exactly where they are - since they were mapped by ecologists in the 1990s.

Ms Haggith said: “Assynt is special because we dnow exactly where all the elms are. There are 31 locations in the parish where there are elm trees. Some of those are home to a single giant individual, and at others, there is a group of them.”

Among the most dramatic is an old elm that clings to the rock above a stream in the Traligill, locally known as the troll river. 

. “A river," she described, "vanishes into an underground channel into the limestone, then appears again later on. The ravine is very steep and craggy and, halfway up this steep crag, is the most incredible tree growing out of the rock. It’s huge and makes you wonder what physics enables it to hang on up there.

“And from underground there's this roaring of the river going on. It’s like you can hear the trolls grumbling underground with this incredible, impossible tree up above it, festooned with ferns and lichens and moss. It’s like a whole ecological community in its own right, just suspended in space up this crag.”

The Herald: Traligill wych elm in Assynt. Image: Chris PuddephattTraligill wych elm in Assynt. Image: Chris Puddephatt (Image: Chris Puddephatt)

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Ms Haggith is visiting all of these sites as part of research for a book she is writing on elms. She is, however, not alone in doing this pilgrimage, for photographer Chris Puddephatt began a project to document all the trees earlier this year.

On one occasion this involved him taking a walk of 20 km to shoot just one particular tree.

Mr Puddephatt said: “Many of the elms that I’ve visited to date are quite isolated; they take a lot of effort to reach, and quite a few are perched in great photo locations. Some of the trees are very grand, upright specimens of "a classical style”, and some of them are multi-stemmed organisms creeping over rocky outcrops with roots that look like great big tentacles.”