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'Promising' breakthrough could restore English landscape devastated by elm disease — here's how

"We want to make these trees accessible to everyone."

The ultimate goal is to distribute seedlings and saplings to restore the landscape to its historical beauty.

Photo Credit: iStock

In the 1970s, England lost a significant part of its landscape and cultural heritage as Dutch elm disease devastated its iconic English elms. However, there's now exciting news on the horizon, as a new disease-resistant variety, reminiscent of the classic English elm, is making a comeback, thanks to the dedicated efforts of conservationists.

As reported by the Guardian, Dr. David Herling and Fergus Poncia, deeply affected by the loss of these majestic trees, embarked on a mission to bring them back. Their new variety, which closely resembles the classic English elm in both form and resistance to the disease, has generated considerable excitement among enthusiasts.

The journey to this breakthrough was not an easy one. Herling and Poncia had to cross a proven disease-resistant elm with an English elm that possessed the classic shape. After years of meticulous work, they finally succeeded in creating 130 saplings, with four showing both disease resistance and the desired upright shape and branch angle.

"When it flowers, you only have a window of a few hours, so you have to sit up overnight, watching, and hope the others will flower at the same time. Then you take the pollen off with a paintbrush from one and paste it on to the other. It's not like putting two bunny rabbits in a hutch and waiting," said Poncia.

Tragically, Dr. Herling died from cancer in March 2020, leaving behind a legacy of hope for England's elms. His wife, Joanna, expressed to the Guardian that Herling felt the elms symbolized constancy and should remain unchanged.

Since Herling's passing, the work has continued, with researchers at NIAB EMR in Kent multiplying the candidates. Professor Richard Buggs, senior research leader at Kew, lauded Herling and Poncia's elms as "promising." The ultimate goal is to distribute seedlings and saplings to restore England's landscape to its historical beauty.

When trees are replanted, they contribute to carbon sequestration, which aids in the fight against global overheating. Trees absorb carbon dioxide — a key pollutant — and release oxygen back into the air, making the environment cleaner and healthier.

However, it's important to understand that not all tree planting is created equal. For instance, forestry experts highlight that simply replanting chopped-down trees isn't enough without considering the biodiversity of the original forests. 

Old-growth forests, which develop over centuries, are complex ecosystems with various plant species, wildlife, and multiple canopy layers. So, while replanting trees is a step in the right direction, it's crucial to approach reforestation with an understanding of the local ecosystem.

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