Looking across the Sid Valley today, we cannot fail to appreciate the beautiful mature trees that line our hedgerows and make such a contribution to one of the most beautiful, iconic and popular landscapes in the country.
These hedgerow trees support wildlife, clean our air, hold water and soil within our fields, store carbon and generally make our lives better by their very existence. The large mature trees we walk and drive past today are predominantly oak, ash, beech, with some Scots pine or sycamore.
Looking back at old photos, postcards and paintings, there are still many trees punctuating the hedgerows but their shape is different to today’s trees. There is a characteristic shape to them, with canopies that spread less than oaks but with more growth up the trunk. These are our lost elms, by far the most common mature hedgerow tree until the 1900s. Everyone has heard of the tragedy of Dutch Elm Disease, that has robbed us of these stately trees, but more of that shortly.
In his 1795 diary kept while riding around East Devon, the Rev. John Swete talks of the tall, overhanging elms being so numerous they obscure the view. In 1803, Edmund Butcher writes in his diary of the Sidmouth treescape “In the hedges a great number of forest trees are interspersed – elms, ashes and oaks are the chief but several other varieties are to be met with – and a multitude of orchards are scattered in every direction.” In 1845, The Tourist’s Guide to Sidmouth records that “Elm is the most thriving timber tree in the area. Oak, ash and beech are also common, but don’t grow to the same extent”. In the 1870s, Peter Orlando Hutchinson records that in an amateur archaeological excavation of an ancient fire site he undertook on Salcombe Hill, “the charcoal was that of oak and fir, two species of tree scarcely known in this neighbourhood now. The elm is the common tree in the valley of Sidmouth, whilst the ash abounds at Salcombe and Honiton, and Harpford Wood is of beech.”
It is not coincidence or even simple ecology which led to the dominance of elm then, or ash and oak today as our mature hedgerow trees in the Sid Valley. They do not share our lives through chance or evolution, but due to the simple, everyday actions of people who lived hundreds of years ago, the needs of a world without oil and – surprisingly – the bureaucracy of a bygone era.
From the pollen record we know that the tree species growing naturally within our woodlands were – still are in some places – small-leaved lime, oak, wych elm, hazel on the dryer land, and alder and willow in the wetter areas, alongside the rivers, up the streams, to the springs rising half way up our hillsides, where the clay covered mudstones of the slopes meet the greensand tops. These tops, with their poorer soils, would have supported birch, some pine and oak, which would be more stunted and wind-sculpted, the closer they grew to the summit and the coast.
As people carved a living from the land and set up their holdings close to the springs, on the more fertile free-draining soils, they started to influence the tree species, favouring trees like hazel and ash, that could be coppiced for fuel and fencing, and timber trees like oak and elm that were durable enough to build houses, ships and to shore up land and foundations. Species growing naturally, but with fewer uses for humans, such as small leaved lime and field maple were gradually inched out of the landscape in favour of more productive species.
As populations rose, resources started to decline and people in power decided to protect or renew these resources. In November 1600, John Wislake, a yeoman, was granted a lease for 99 years on three messuages (smallholdings) in Sidford, with the stipulation that he or his descendants “plant annually 3 apple or pear trees and 3 oak, ash or elm trees”. Leases like this were common throughout the late 1500s until the early 1700s, after which few are found. The number of trees to be planted each year were low, but because the requirement was to plant every year, it provided a staggered supply over centuries, gradually replacing those harvested. In the same lease, the right to harvest was explicitly set out, based on purpose. John could harvest “housebote for repairs, firebote, hedgebote, stakebote, gatebote, ploughbote” – nothing more, nothing less. As a suffix, “bote” simply means “wood” from the French “bois”. So John could take wood to repair his house, for fuel for his fire, for stakes as he laid his hedges, for fencing and repairing his gates and ploughs. He would not have been allowed to take “great timber” to build a house, for example, since this would have been the privilege of his landlord. The same lease records an “Agreement that Lord Petre may take oaks, ashes or elms from all parts of tenement except the grove, so long as he leave sufficient timber for repairs”.
Other leases in the Sid Valley and beyond stipulate what was essentially a seventeenth century tree planting tax for those who didn’t have the time or inclination to plant themselves, so had to “forfeit 3s. 4d. for each tree”. Equivalent values are fraught with pitfalls, but my best estimate is that this equates to roughly a week’s wage for a labourer or the cost of a sheep.
Elm wood is particularly good at lasting in waterlogged conditions, with the foundations of old London Bridge lasting for 600 years as an example. So elm was vital for boats, for pipes and for foundations, as well as coffins, cartwheels, floor boards and even longbows. Ensuring a sustainable resource of elm for boat building would have been a high priority for a coastal community at a time when most of the population were dependent on fishing and coastal trade, rather than transport by packhorse overland. In 1776, early tourist Samuel Curwen records in his diary watching men on Sidmouth foreshore building a ship using ash and elm. In 1819, an elm that blew down on land owned by a Sidmouth charity for the poor was sold for 7 pounds – several months’ wages for a labourer. The same document records that there is “little growing timber on the premises”.
So our forebears valued elm and worked hard to preserve it within the working landscape, and our wildlife has come to depend on it. Early pollen is important for many insects including honey bees. Elm seeds develop before most other seeds and provide an important food for songbirds. Elm hosts 80 species of invertebrate, including White-letter Hairstreak butterflies, which are completely dependent on mature elm trees. In Devon, this butterfly species is now restricted to Plymouth and the Bovey Valley, but would once have been found across the county, including in the Sid Valley; their eggs have been found within a few miles of us within the last 20 years, but no adults sighted.
In the last century the dreaded Dutch Elm Disease devastated our elms. It is caused by a fungus carried to the tree by elm bark beetles which bore into the bark and create breeding tunnels. The fungus runs through the xylem of the tree, blocking transport of water and causing the tree to wilt. The first wave of the disease hit elms in the early 1900s but dropped away around 1930 as the first pathogen died out. However despite the loss of 90% of our mature elms from the 1970s onwards, the second wave shows no sign of dying out because the second pathogen – the fungus Ophiostoma novo-ulmi – evolves continually.
Despite this, elm has not actually been lost from our landscape. Our hedgerows are in fact full of flailed elm suckers which still thrive until the point that their bark is sufficiently thick to attract the beetles to breed. Therefore much of the wildlife that depends on elm is still clinging on and it’s important that we continue to keep elm in the landscape. Ideally we will do this by laying hedges and coppicing elm to promote young growth, but flailing can also be part of the mix, especially if it is cut quite high, and perhaps in alternating years. We have to be pragmatic about what farmers and land managers have the time and resources to do, and work with that.
Research has provided us with some elm cultivars which are more resistant to the disease and they are increasingly being planted by enthusiasts. One such is the New Horizon Elm presented by the Tree Council, and planted in 2020 in Long Park by Sidmouth Town Council and Sidmouth Arboretum, as part of a programme to replace the ash trees felled due to ash dieback. We have two semi-mature Huntingdon Elms, a hybrid between an English and a Dutch Elm species, one in The Byes and one in Bickwell Valley.
So we do have the prospect of gradually restoring elms to our landscape. If you are lucky enough to have elms already in an old hedge on your garden or land, please continue to coppice them or lay the hedge before the beetles descend. And if you have the space, please be part of an amazing legacy by planting resistant elms to grow into mature trees for future generations to enjoy. You can find out more, including where to buy them, by visiting the Butterfly Conservation webpage on resistant elms.
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