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A mighty stirring down in the woods

Friday 5 March 2010

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who is still in mourning for the stately elm tree, delights that – once again – amateur enthusiasts are taking part in a nationwide drive to bring life, and knowledge, back to our precious woods

THE small garden of our first cottage in the Yorkshire Dales was dominated by three towering elm trees which were higher than the garden was long. From our kitchen window, they framed the view across the valley to the tiny beck which, for its size, was home to some monstrous trout.

Those plump, healthy fish – and the heron that used to hunt them – was an indicator that the local habitat was in pretty good shape. Or so we thought. We did not know then that a deadly virus was lurking in our garden and that, within a year or so, that splendid view would change, probably for ever.

Elm: back from the dead?

It was autumn time when we moved in so it was not until the following spring that we realised that, whilst other species of trees were blooming, our elms were developing a skinny, threadbare sort of look. It was one of our new neighbours, a part time forester, who gave us the bad news: “Sorry, but yon elms have t’ disease.”

This presented us with a major dilemma. We desperately wanted to keep our elms but, because of their size, had they ever fallen – and the winds swept down that valley like express trains – they could have hit our cottage or, even worse, the cottage next door: not an act of good neighbourliness.

They had to go. Our forester neighbour felled them into the next door field – having to take down and then rebuild the drystone wall to do so, otherwise that would have been crushed too - and chain sawed them into logs. We shared those for our open fires and, bless him, he didn’t charge us a penny – a professional tree surgeon would have billed us for many hundreds today.

Despite that kindness, we soon moved house. Our prized view had somehow been raped and this was a scene being repeated across the nation: according to experts, some 25 million elms were killed off or felled in the last 30 years if the 20th Century and you can still see the gaps they left.

Where I fish in the Lune Valley, there is a marvellous wood along a high ridge which still looks like a mouth savaged by a mad dentist because of the gaps left by the missing elms – and they had to be felled almost 40 years ago.

So imagine my delight this week when I received an announcement from a relatively new charity, the Conservation Foundation, that 250 schools throughout the UK had signed up to a new scheme to plant thousands of elm saplings grown on from native trees which, for reasons unknown, had survived the great plague (See News).

Mother Nature is in total confusion after the coldest winter for 30 years...

This comes at a time when, as I have reported before, the one millionth tree is to be planted in the Yorkshire Dales this year under a long-standing project organised by the Yorkshire Dales Millennium Trust and in other parts of the country, there is a huge growth in tree planting – most of it carried out by amateur volunteers and charities.

Also this week came news from another of my favourite charities, the Woodland Trust, asking the great British public to help them build a data base by reporting the blossoming of plants like snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils or the laying of frogspawn in streams and ponds (see News also).

These key arrivals will allow the trust, which manages some 1,000 woods, all of them open to the public, to build a hard-fact data base on climate change without, hopefully, any of the controversy on this subject stirred up by some of the alarmist views of certain scientists whose livelihoods depend of research grants from Government.

This is a subject I would rather ignore at present – as I am trying desperately to ignore the looming general election and its potential affects on the countryside – but I must confess to enjoying a chuckle when such data on snowdrops and daffs are being collected when Mother Nature is in total confusion after the coldest winter for 30 years (50 years in Scotland).

My snowdrops haven’t appeared at all yet, and it was St David’s Day on Monday, when the patron saint of Wales is usually celebrated by the wearing of daffodils: my daff shoots are perhaps four inches tall and, worryingly, have gone yellow at the tips. This, I guess, it the result of some of the severe frosts last week. So much for global warming!

But I do not wish to end on a bitter note. At a time when the country is in such a mess financially and socially, it warms the old cockles to see that robust charities and their ever-willing amateur volunteers are happy to get off their backsides and go to work to save and enhance our precious countryside. If only there were some in Westminster prepared to do the same.

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