THE WILY WYCH
After Dutch Elm Disease swept through Britain and Europe in the 1970s and 80s huge gaping holes, like pulled teeth, appeared in the countryside. For such a magnificent tree to be lost to large swathes of the countryside was a biodiversity and landscape tragedy. So how lucky is Kirkby Stephen to have a proud, magnificent wych elm in its midst? Standing proud and alone on Tarn Lane, the tree is a wonderful example of spirited resistance against a formidable foe. Resistant to Dutch Elm Disease, its special seeds have been harvested to produce new saplings to regenerate the species elsewhere. It is a wily old wych indeed.
This development heartens Ann Sandell, Chairman of Kirkby Stephen & District Walkers. 'Whilst other veteran trees may be older or taller this is a warm friendly tree as it leans away from the prevailing western winds sheltering the stock fence gate,' she says. 'I often lead walks this way and we have made and published an adventure walk using this under-used route to introduce children to the area and this magnificent tree.' People often ask how you can tell wych elm and the traditional English elm apart. One of the best ways is this: wych elm, when mature, have long lower branches which droop down where as the English elm forms a very distinctive handle shape.
There used to be a tarn near Tarn Lane but it was drained many years ago for sheep grazing. One reminder is a small door built into a boundary wall to enable ducks to waddle through and reach the water.
Although all elms are associated with melancholy and death - because the trees can drop dead branches without warning and the timber was the preferred choice for coffins - they are great for wildlife, particularly insects. Many birds eat the seeds and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars of many moths, including the peppered, light emerald and white spotted pinion moths. Caterpillars of the white letter hairstreak butterfly need elms and the species has declined dramatically since Dutch elm disease arrived in the UK.