Scotland’s newly named Tree of the Year has been adopted as symbolic leader of a campaign to halt the spread of Dutch elm disease in the Highlands.  The 'Last Ent of Affric' is marshalling its forces for the battle of the glens as the beetle behind the infection travels west.

Alasdair Firth of Woodland Trust Scotland said:

“Dutch elm disease has swept round the North-East of Scotland to Inverness and is now making its way along the Great Glen towards the west coast. There are healthy elm populations on the west coast now under threat. The ElmWatch campaign launched today aims to stop the spread of the disease and carry out research to secure the future of the species.”

Dr Euan Bowditch of the Wooded Landscapes Research Group at Inverness College UHI said:

“The disease is directly spread by beetles, but ultimately by people. We are seeing Dutch elm disease move through major road arteries in the Highlands – along the Great Glen but also north along the A9, and out towards Ullapool on the A835. The beetles are hitch-hiking their way across the Highlands, most likely through the transport of diseased wood that will infect and kill more trees. If we can limit the movement of infected elm wood, we can give healthy elm populations, such as those in the west, a shot at survival.”

Government agency Scottish Forestry is urging the public to avoid moving elm timber and firewood across the disease frontline – and has produced a map.

John Risby, Scottish Forestry Conservator for the Highlands and Islands Conservancy said:

“Major infection has spread around the Moray Firth in the last four years. The beetle cannot fly far and would be unlikely to make it to the west coast unaided. We are asking everyone to avoid moving elm timber or firewood north or west of the line shown on our map. This line is an estimate of the extent of the disease in 2019.

“If you see an elm north or west of this line which you think may be infected please report it through the TREEALERT website: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/tools-and-resources/tree-alert/ "

Dr Euan Bowditch said:

“The public perception of elm is probably quite defeatist. Many people might not realise that healthy elms exist, grow and regenerate. I think it is important to emphasise that elms are not lost to our landscape. They still have a role to play in the structure of our native woodland. But this requires collaborative work across landscapes with agencies, communities and landowners. I hope the launch of ElmWatch can begin to raise the necessary levels of awareness to give our elms a future.”

Elements of ElmWatch include:

  • Raising public awareness to stop material from elm trees being transported into healthy regions.
  • Woodland Trust Scotland is funding University of the Highlands and Islands to carry out a pioneering genomics scoping study to test DNA extraction techniques with the aim to ultimately identify disease-resistant traits in elm.
  • Longer term consideration will be given to creating buffer zones too wide for the disease to cross. This might involve the tactical removal of some trees.  Woodland Trust Scotland may set up and manage elm refuges on land it manages.
  • ElmWatch will provide a foundation for establishing improved networks across the UK and internationally to share data and co-ordinate efforts into elm.

Alasdair Firth of Woodland Trust Scotland said:

“The Last Ent of Affric is a wonderful symbol for the campaign. Ents serve as guardians or shepherds of the forest. As we launch ElmWatch, it is as though The Last Ent of Affric is marshalling its troops for the battle of the glens!”

The Last Ent of Affric is a magnificent lone elm named Scotland’s Tree of the Year 2019 last month after a public vote organised by the Woodland Trust. Hundreds of years old, it has lived quietly protected by its remote location – a 10km walk from the nearest road.

The tree has a peculiar 'face' visible on its trunk which is why it has been named 'Ent', for the mythological tree creatures which feature in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Giles Brockman of Forest and Land Scotland nominated the tree in the competition.

Dutch elm disease is caused by the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi which is spread by the elm bark beetle. It got its name from the team of Dutch pathologists who carried out research on the disease in the 1920s. Elm bark beetles breed in the bark of cut, diseased or otherwise weakened elm trees then disperse to healthy elm trees where they feed. Spores  of O. novo-ulmi are introduced into the xylem (channels for water and nutrients) of the healthy tree, releasing toxins and causing the vessels to block and the tree to wilt and die.

Dutch elm disease was accidentally imported into the UK from Canada in the late 1960s. It spread quickly, reaching Scotland in just 10 years.

This now infamous tree disease has killed over 60 million elm trees in the UK.

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Notes to editors

For further information contact George Anderson at Woodland Trust Scotland on 07770 700631.

Woodland Trust Scotland is part of the largest woodland conservation charity in the UK. The Woodland Trust has over 500,000 supporters. It wants to see a UK rich in native woods and trees for people and wildlife.

The Trust has three key aims:

i) protect ancient woodland which is rare, unique and irreplaceable

ii) restoration of damaged ancient woodland, bringing precious pieces of our natural history back to life

iii) plant native trees and woods with the aim of creating resilient landscapes for people and wildlife.

Established in 1972, the Woodland Trust now has over 1,000 sites in its care covering over 28,700 hectares. In 1984, the Trust acquired its first wood in Scotland. Today it owns and cares for some 60 sites covering more than 8,000 hectares across Scotland. Access to its woods is free.