AN ancient elm tree that has stood alone in the Highlands – protecting it from deadly disease – has been joined by a new generation of seedlings for the first time in "hundreds of years".

The wych elm – known as the Last Ent of Affric in homage to the tree-shepherds from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings story – has been chosen to help in the fight against Dutch Elm disease.

The new role has meant the former Scottish Tree of the Year has been branded as a "guardian" of the species.

Thirty-five young elm trees have been transferred from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE) and replanted in the shadow of the Last Ent of Affric. These will be the first of 200 trees planted over the next two years. It is part of a joint effort between the Gardens and the University of the Highlands and Islands along with landowners like Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) to save the species from Dutch Elm disease.

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The project involves cultivating disease resistant seedlings and then planting them at suitable sites – of which Glen Affric is one. It is hoped there will be cross pollination between the seedlings – and maybe even with the mature elm itself – to help in the recovery, from decades of loss, for one of Scotland’s most majestic native trees. 

FLS forester Sam Brown said: “Having lived hidden away, many miles from the closest tree of the same species, the old elm of Glen Affric has escaped the ravages of Dutch Elm disease. It is fitting this site has been chosen as part of efforts to save the wych elm.

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“Glen Affric also benefits from ongoing conservation efforts between FLS and our partners that includes managing deer populations. By limiting or removing the chance of deer damage to the young trees we can give them a better chance of survival.

“Our local FLS teams - specifically the craftsperson squad – have worked very hard in all weather, on difficult terrain to install a fenced enclosure that has made the project possible.

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“Many of Scotland’s most threatened species can be found on our land in in our woodlands and we are committed to working with partner organisations to conserve and tackle the things that threaten them.”      

Dr Max Coleman of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh explained: "Using surviving, large wych elms in the Scottish Borders, exposed to Dutch elm disease for around 40 years, we have bred a new generation of seedlings that we hope have inherited resilience to disease from both parents.

"The offspring of these rare, promising trees are being planted in carefully selected sites that meet their needs and offer potential for natural spread. This work is assisting the formation of new populations of wild elms that have the genes and the genetic diversity that we hope will enable survival and adaptation in a changing environment."

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FLS seed resource manager Kenny Hay added: “With the planting that’s been undertaken in collaboration with RBGE, it gives us great hope we will be able to harvest valuable seed which may be resistant to Dutch Elm Disease and allow us to utilise this rare species in a much wider context across the FLS estate in the future.”

The recovery of the wych elm is part of a project aiming to increase the numbers and distribution of ten threatened native plants and is funded by a three-year grant totalling £715,000 from the Scottish Government’s Nature Restoration Fund.