“What appears to be overlooked is the fact that this apparent decline in the elm population coincided with the arrival of farming folk in this country. The farmers brought livestock with them, and released cattle and sheep into areas they cleared of trees”
A little way along the road stands a great elm tree, one of the few of its kind not to have succumbed to the ravages of that notorious killer of fine trees, the Dutch elm disease.
The best elms I ever saw were in the lowlands of south eastern Scotland, where they grew to gigantic proportions (some were a full six feet through, each branch a trailerful of logs). But those trees were of a different sort: the English elm.
Our few remaining elm trees are specifically the Wych elm, a comparatively lowly tree, but certainly notable in its own environment. Palynologists, scientists who endeavor to build a picture of past landscapes by studying pollen samples preserved, sometimes for thousands of years, in waterlogged areas, are much in agreement that the Wych elm arrived in this country as the ice sheets retreated, some ten thousand or so years ago.
Perhaps the most notable event revealed by this science of palynology is the huge decline in elm pollen that took place a little over five thousand years ago. Elm pollen had been abundant up to that time; it virtually disappeared in a few short catastrophic years. Why?
What appears to be overlooked is the fact that this apparent decline in the elm population coincided with the arrival of farming folk in this country. The farmers brought livestock with them, and released cattle and sheep into areas they cleared of trees. Quite naturally, they concentrated on the better soils, soils colonized by mature, climax woodland species, such as oak and elm. Scots pine dominated the poorer ground, and alder grew well, as it still does, in the wetter areas.
As the newly arrived farming folk soon found out, Irish winters aren’t particularly conducive to keeping free range livestock in the best of health. There was a need for stores of fodder. Before sufficient areas were cleared of their tree cover, summer leaves would have been cut and dried on a seasonal basis. The leaves of the elm were free from tannin (unlike those of the other climax woodland species, oak) and grew luxuriantly. They were easy to harvest; entire branches could be taken. Not only did this mean the harvest could be easily handled, it encouraged the trees to produce a larger crop the following year.
The flowers of the elm grow among its leaves and would be harvested at the same time, while the foliage was still young and tender. Consequently, there was a great decline in the amount of elm pollen, though the trees were still in place. As the human population increased there was a growing demand for farmland and the trees had to go.
Since then came the Dutch elm disease, with its bark-burrowing beetle vector, to destroy this part of our heritage.
Now our elm tree is one of a mere handful of survivors. I say ‘our elm’, although of course it rightly belongs to no one, just as nobody can lay claim to the robin pair that nested in the mass of burr twigs, to the Long-tailed titmice that swing acrobatically from the finest of winter twiglets, or to the anonymous brigade of caterpillars who chew their way through uncounted thousands of rich, green elm leaves.
But it is ‘our’ elm in that we know where it is, and how it is. We know the gentle hum of summer that resonates especially round its bole; that busyness so notably absent from the cultivated, factory woodlands of the modern world, where little light seeps through a dense canopy of needles and where little grows except the occasional sparse bramble. We know what it is to sit at its root and watch the distant traffic down the hill, cars traveling hither and thither, not unlike the small black ants that scale the deep-ridged bark at our backs in search of who-knows-what.
Mid-nineteenth century poet John Clare, who saw the fields and streams denuded of their wooded cover for perhaps the first time in thousands of years, said of what must have been his favourite tree, in his poem The Fallen Elm;
‘Old elm, that murmured in our chimney top
The sweetest anthem autumn ever made…’
He goes on to link the felling of this tree to future misfortunes experienced by local commoners, as if the tree was somehow connected to their very being. He loved his trees. He also spent part of his life in an asylum.