The story of the wych elm trees in the Bovey Valley Woods has reached its final chapter. The volunteers of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve began the adventure began back in 2016 when a hunt for the diminished population of elms took a painstakingly methodical route through the woods to find these elusive trees. The first stage of the project required the individual trees to be found, assessed for health, recorded and plotted on a map because, before this time, nobody knew how many trees stood in the woods of the Bovey Valley after the ravages of Dutch Elm Disease.
To conserve the wych elm species, a bagful of seeds was taken away to try out some different propagation techniques. Elm tree seeds are notorious for their very low rate of viability; from a handful of seed, only a few will germinate so a bag stuffed with thousands of seeds was taken away for trials. Two years later, around twenty small trees had germinated and grown to a reasonable size for planting out in the woods.
Collecting and germinating elm seeds – Is this the future of elm trees in the Bovey Valley?
Not only is the wych elm becoming an endangered species, but the white-letter hairstreak, a rare resident of Hisley Woods, relies on elm trees as a caterpillar food plant. Without the host tree, the butterfly would probably disappear and in 2017 a training day set out to look for this elusive butterfly. (Read the blog about white-letter hairstreak)
Back in the summer of 2017, some of the white-letter hairstreaks had been spotted in the canopies of two individual trees beside the car park at Pullabrook Wood. To give these beautiful butterflies a fighting chance, the conservation team thought that these isolated habitats would benefit from being more connected, linked up to the other precious elms around the woods. The new elm saplings would be planted along an old woodland boundary as it was undergoing a bit of habitat restoration work. (Read the blog about the boundary on the edge of the wood)
In 2018, the Natural England Conservation Assistants have been back in action to plant the elms that were grown from seed. The recently planted hedge bank had a few spaces left and, on a very wet and windy day in October, the small trees were planted out; connecting the habitat along the valley from Pullabrook Wood to Hisley Wood and safeguarding the long-term future of the white-letter hairstreak. Will the story have a happy ending? We hope so. All we need to do now is wait for the elm trees to grow.
by Matt Parkins