Tree disease back with a vengence

An area bordering the Channel coast including Brighton, Eastbourne and the rural Cuckmere and Ouse valleys, holds the world’s largest population of mature elm trees. Take a stroll along one of the wide avenues of either Brighton (home to the ‘National Elm Collection’) or Eastbourne; go for a country amble within the stunning beauty of the Cuckmere valley…

The more observant individual may notice something markedly wrong – tops of trees turning yellow and finally brown during high summer; and clumps of dead, leafless trees. Quietly over the past couple of years a landscape and cultural tragedy has been allowed to unfold, having escaped the attention of many.

Yes, Dutch Elm Disease, the world’s most virulent tree infection, is back with an alarming vengeance! Elms are very much part of our English heritage. Its timber was once of great industrial importance, not to mention its appearance in Constable’s iconic masterpieces. These truly magnificent trees are currently facing a losing fight for their very survival.

The Dutch Elm Control Scheme – was admirably set up in 1971 by the East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and neighbouring Local Authorities and until recently, successfully protected the elms across a wide swath of East Sussex. The disease is caused by a fungus carried by tiny bark beetles, which cause the elm tree’s immune system to shut down sap tubes, leading to premature death and then travelling on through roots to the next tree.

This year has witnessed a dramatic increase in the incidence of the disease, exacerbated by a warm, dry spring allowing the disease’s vector to take flight earlier in the year.

Specifically, in the expansive rural areas of the scheme, its former administrator, the now defunct Sussex Downs Joint Committee, took a budgetary decision to cut the number of employed professional field officers and rely on part-time volunteers. At the same time, ineptitude and mis-management also took their toll. Most crucially, substantial delays were allowed involving the letting of work to contractors for carrying out felling of diseased trees, resulting in delays sometimes amounting to months. Expediency is absolutely pivotal to controlling this disease.

This rural element of the Dutch Elm Control Scheme recently passed in April back to being ESCC administered and in its current form now has only one full-time member of staff aided by volunteers. The scale of the problem these past weeks has now reached epidemic proportions. Stands of trees are clothed in brown, desiccated leaves; dead trees stand forlorn, inherited from last year; this situation should never have been allowed to happen in the first place, for these skeletal trees now provide ideal bark beetle brood sites and thus help proliferate the beetle population. With the best intentions in the world, it is likely that ESCC could fail to regain control of a rapidly deteriorating situation and risk the wider scheme.

The current ravishing of the East Sussex elm population is taking a heavy toll on the larger mature specimens which are so important in both city, urban and rural landscape terms. In the short term, there is little we can do to ameliorate the vagaries of our weather upon our unique elms, but with vigilance and the carrying out of prompt felling, we could!

Elms are characteristic of those interlacing qualities that draw tourists to our city, towns and the South Downs National Park, which in turn, contributes greatly to our local economy.

Could our local councilors please put their heads together and take urgent action to assist their hard-pressed officer with helping to safeguard this unique last vestige of a once widespread, majestic element of our English landcape? Savings made from several fewer seasonal part-time salaries are a false economy resulting in a prolonged and unnecessary delay in stemming the spread of Dutch Elm Disease; a small shift in budget management would enable precious local authority and private resources to be spent far more efficiently.

Monty Larkin, East Grinstead