Elm revival: Railway helps reintroduce native tree to the Weald

The Kent & East Sussex Railway (K&ESR) is helping to reintroduce an environmentally important native tree to the Weald – the Elm – which virtually disappeared from the English landscape in the 1970s, following an outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease (DED).

The railway’s entirely volunteer Forestry & Conservation group, which is responsible for the management of all trees and vegetation along the 10.5-mile line, has recently planted ten DED-resistant species of standard Elm tree at the start of its 2024 tree planting programme.

Kent County Council (KCC) donated the five ‘Rebona’ and five ‘New Horizon’ Elms to the railway as part of its Tree Establishment Strategy which is being implemented across the county. Not only are these two Elm varieties disease-resistant, they can also happily tolerate both drought and waterlogging which makes them ideally suited to the K&ESR’s lineside habitats.

Adding to biodiversity

Fast-growing and resilient, the Elms will add to the overall biodiversity of their location, next to a two-acre wildflower field at Rolvenden. This location was carefully selected to maximise their ecological benefit as well as enable the Forestry & Conservation team to monitor, water and care for the young trees as they grow.

‘New Horizon’ Elms are particularly important ecologically as they can provide food and a breeding habitat for the much-depleted White Letter Hairstreak butterfly, currently only found in a very limited number of locations in the South East.

While the trees were delivered earlier in the year, it is only in the last few weeks that it has been possible for the team to finally plant them, due to the exceptionally high rainfall which turned the chosen site into a quagmire.

A few weeks on, and with the benefit or some drier, warmer weather, the Elms are looking healthy and settled in the Kent landscape. The K&ESR Forestry & Conservation team will now proceed to sympathetically enhance the immediate area surrounding them as part of the railway’s overall conservation plans.

Paul Davies, who heads up the Forestry & Conservation Team, and Steve McMurdo, who has been an active volunteer for over 10 years and helped to plant the Elms, are both delighted about the reintroduction on the railway’s estate:

“The majority of our team are of an age group who remember the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970’s and the subsequent devastation it caused. It has therefore been particularly satisfying for us to be given responsibility for the planting and caring for these new Elm trees, donated by KCC.”

A remarkable and rich nature corridor

The Forestry & Conservation team has been responsible for planting some 3,000 trees on railway land in the last few years, both along the line and in the areas around its stations – an area equivalent to around 30 acres.

This work is just part of the railway’s overall commitment to sustainability and conservation. As well as planting more trees – including Elms – there are plans to introduce wildflower meadows to encourage pollinators and for improvements to wetlands. In this regard, the K&ESR is collaborating with the Romney-Rother Catchment Partnership, the High Weald National Landscape and Kent-Medway Making Space for Nature (MS4N)*.

The K&ESR is also currently part-way through a two-year ecological study with the Kent Wildlife Trust Consultancy and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, to record and further support biodiversity along the railway. Early results have confirmed just how ecologically rich the railway estate already is. Some 89 different species of bird and 15 bumblebees were identified. Seventeen of the birds appear on the Red List of endangered species and 22 on the Amber list, including Turtle Doves and Nightingales, plus two rare species of bumblebee: the Light Ruderal and the Back Form Ruderal.

“The railway is the custodian of a remarkable – if accidental – nature corridor,” says Keith Barron, Lead on Biodiversity & Habitats for the K&ESR’s Sustainability Group.

“As a result, we have a unique opportunity to protect and regenerate these linear habitats, helping to link up green corridors that benefit both nature and the people who live and farm nearby. A valuable spin-off benefit lies in engaging our visitors with the process, adding to their experience of visiting a heritage railway and educating them about the importance of biodiversity.”