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Keeping yew safe

  • Written by  Hazel Southam
  • Published in Forests
The impressive trunk of Ankerwycke, the yew tree that looked over the signing of the Magna Carta The impressive trunk of Ankerwycke, the yew tree that looked over the signing of the Magna Carta Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
05 Apr
Saplings from the yew tree claimed to have been on the site of the signing of the Magna Carta are being grown at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh in a bid to preserve the tree for thousands of years

The Ankerwycke yew stands in a water meadow on the flood plain of the River Thames. Its trunk measures 8m (26ft). This tree is thought to be more than 1,400 years old and is said to stand on the exact spot where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

As the Magna Carta marks its 800th anniversary this month [June], six saplings grown from cuttings of the famous yew are being grown in a hedge at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. And they are expected to live for at least several hundred, if not thousands of years.

The hedge is being grown from iconic yew trees across Britain, including some of the most ancient which are thought to be hundreds of years old. These include trees at Borrowdale in Yorkshire, which feature in William Wordsworth’s 1803 poem Yew Trees, and cuttings from the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire, which is reputed to be 4,000 years old.

Martin Gardner MBE the Gardens’ International Conifer Conservation Programme Co-ordinator who heads the scheme, says that the hedge is being grown because Britain’s historic yew trees ‘are under threat’.

‘We are losing ancient yews all the time in this country, to climate change, development and vandalism,’ he said. ‘These are the most iconic trees in the world. We have to conserve every single one. It matters because this is important genetic material. We also know that yew trees have important properties for treating cancer, but we have only just touched the tip of the iceberg for testing plants like yew for their medical uses.’

The first sapling was planted in May 2014 and by the time the hedge – which will surround the Botanic Gardens - is completed in 2020 it will contain some 2,000 trees.

There are thought to be only around 2,000 ancient yews in Britain today. Ten per cent have been felled, vandalized or blown down in storms in recent years. The result is that the English yew is now on the endangered species list, where once it grew prolifically across Britain.

One of ten yew trees surrounding a church in Cefnllys in Powys, Wales, was burned down in 2006. Tim Hills from the Ancient Yew Group which works to protect Britain’s yew trees said, ‘Before anyone realized the whole tree was alight. The fire brigade was called, but all too late as this is an exceptionally remote site, so the tree was totally destroyed.’

In 2009, a yew tree in Cilmeri, Wales was cut down because a group of parishioners complained that it ‘cast too much of a shadow in that part of the churchyard’. ‘It was another instance of the needless destruction of our yew heritage,’ said Mr Hills.

And today, St John’s Church in Guildford has plans to sell off some of its land in order to extend the church building. This could result in nine yew trees being felled. Despite this, Mr Gardner said that, ‘Our iconic yew trees wouldn’t have survived without the Church. If they were in a hospital campus or a school they wouldn’t have survived. The Church has been the safest place. Now it can play a major role in securing its future.’

Yews have long been associated with churches and so Mr Gardner is calling on Britain’s churches to help preserve yew trees. Currently 67 per cent of Britain’s yew trees are found in churchyards.

The Botanic Gardens is offering 100 free yew trees to 100 churches. They are from a species that grows in Chile and is even more rare than the English yew, itself now listed as an endangered species. The Botanic Gardens wants to conserve it.

‘Because of the extraordinary legacy of what’s planted in Britain’s churchyards, we would like to add these plants from Chile to preserve them,’ said Martin Gardner. And he’s calling on landowners to consider planting mazes made of saplings from Britain’s historic yews.

The English yew is now extinct or rare in many parts of Europe, according to the Royal Forestry Society. And it remains under threat from climate change, as Europe’s weather changes.

Martin Gardner says, ‘Conifers such as yew trees are particularly threatened especially with changing climate patterns resulting in extended periods of drought which often debilitate trees and leave them vulnerable to attack by exotic pests and diseases.’

In Britain, yew trees have long been associated with churchyards. But their significance in Britain predates Christianity. They were considered to be symbols of eternal life, because of their longevity, and feature in the Druidic belief of reincarnation.

It is thought that many churches were built on sites of pagan worship where yews were situated in order to Christianise the sites. So some of the UK’s oldest yew trees are older than the churches that they stand next to. This includes St Martin’s Church in Martindale, Cumbria where the yew tree is thought to be 1,300 years old, 500 years older than the church.

A spokesman for the Church of England said, ‘We welcome the news that the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh are utilising the diverse and extensive range of churchyards which hold a rich diversity of plant and animal life.

‘Britain has the world’s greatest collection of English Yews, which have long been a feature in our physical and cultural landscape. We hold some of the oldest found anywhere in the world, with well over half of the ancient yew population found in our churchyards, and the Church is committed to supporting their continued conservation.’

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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