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How Brighton beat Dutch Elm menace
Tanya Gupta
BBC News, South East 11 November 2005
At first glance the two hollow elm trees in
Brighton's Preston Park may appear old but
Yet, standing majestically at 30ft tall, they prove
the success of a vigorous campaign by experts to
defeat a deadly plague that almost wiped out
Britain's elm population.
More than 30 million specimens across the country
were lost to Dutch Elm Disease which hit Britain in
the 1970s.
That Brighton's parks and Georgian streets still
have 15,000 elms is testament to the efforts of a
team of council tree experts who refused to yield to
its ravages.
And while many people have forgotten about this
voracious disease, council Arboriculturist Rob
Greenland remains vigilant.
Two elms in Preston Park are said to be
the oldest in Europe
This summer, one of the elms in Preston Park had to be felled after it bore the
hallmarks of the disease.
Council officers remain on guard against the pest and keep watch for tell-tale
yellow mottling on the leaves - although, despite August's incident, new cases are
Since the epidemic 30 years ago, elms are now restricted to a stronghold on the
South Coast.
Brighton boasts the nation's largest stock of elm
cultivars and varieties, and Mr Greenland says the
species can display widely differing habits.
But all members of the elm family can be
distinguished by their purple flowers in early spring
and their asymmetrical leaves that have a long and
a short lobe.
The city's Edwardians and the Victorians planted
about 25,000 elms, a species that copes well with
coastal exposure and the salt in the wind.
The city remains vigilant against the
devastating disease
Mr Greenland, who has looked after the city's tree stock since the late 1960s, said
when the disease began to hit in the 1970s: "We were not willing to just roll
He said Brighton and Hove, then two separate towns, were in a position to tackle
Dutch Elm Disease because it was a small urban area - compared with large, rural
counties such as Kent where trying to control the fungus would have been an
enormous undertaking.
The disease was transmitted by beetles which munched through infected bark and
passed on the fungus before being further spread by the trees' linked root system.
By 1971, Southampton had suffered large losses
but Brighton officers seized the chance to learn.
"We looked at all the places that already had the
disease and identified mistakes that we then didn't
make," Mr Greenland said.
Unlike neighbouring Southampton, they chose not
to inject trees because chemical controls only
worked for a short time. Instead Brighton tree
experts found it more effective, and cheaper, to
prune out the fungus.
Elms have many different habits but are
recognisable by their leaves
Officers also avoided setting bait traps for elm bark beetles in the middle of the
city because they simply attracted bugs into the centre. Traps were instead set at
the outskirts.
And they asked the council to pay for the treatment, or felling, of privately-owned
Mr Greenland said: "Politicians took a very brave step in using public money to
pay for private trees.
"Someone facing a bill for taking a tree down
might not tell us.
"And while we dealt with our own trees, it wasn't
happening quickly enough in private gardens,
which was undermining local projects."
He said: "In the really heady years, when we were
losing lots of trees, the public were fantastic and
there was a campaign.
"The campaigners were sometimes in a position to
push politicians more than the officers.
Elms flower early and have purple
blossom in March
Seeds appear before the leaves
The leaves are asymmetrical with a
long and short lobe
"It was happening all over and it wasn't just us,
and in some ways our 700 losses a year was better than the 3,000 or 4,000 losses
in someone else's rural area.
"So it seemed to be worthwhile - and we had the conviction that we were always
going to win."