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FAQ's

Are they really that old?
Most tree publications since 1900 have accepted that our oldest yews can exceed 1000 years. It is not possible to determine how many yews can be correctly placed in this category. Only in Allen Meredith’s Gazetteer of Ancient Yews (appendix 3 in The Sacred Yew) are estimated ages given for about 400 trees. Hopefully as new research techniques are developed and funded we might move one step closer to the answer.

1908 “Numerous specimens are known to exceed 1000 years………..”
W.Dallimore Holly, yew and box

1914 “…the age of trees 30ft in girth must be well over 1,000 years.
W.J.Bean Trees and Shrubs (hardy in the British Isles)

1936 “………..there is no doubt that these very old trees have lived for more than a millennium.”
A.W.Holbrook Dictionary of British wayside trees

1966 “Taxus trees are long lived…….certainly it is several thousands of years.”
Boom and Kleijn The glory of the tree

1979 “It is generally conceded that some of the ancient yews locally reputed to be more than 1000 years old may well be that age.”
R.Whitlock Historic forests of England

1981 “The oldest….is now 1500 at a very conservative estimate.”
G.Wilkinson A history of Britain’s trees

1984 “Many of these over 2.5m in diameter…must be in the region of 1,500 years old while some bigger boles may be nearer 3,000 years old.”
A.Mitchell and J.Jobling Decorative trees HMSO Forestry Commission
Equally wide ranging views are expressed in the most recent yew publications:
J.Daryll Evans The Yew Trees of Gwent 1988
Hal Hartzell, Jr. The Yew Tree: 1000 whispers 1991
Trevor Baxter The Eternal Yew 1992
Chetan and Brueton The Sacred Yew 1994
Ken Mills Cumbrian Yew Book 1999
Robert Bevan-Jones The Ancient Yew 2002
(Copyright © Tim Hills 2005)

How are they able to last that long
“It is the toughest, most indestructable and longest lived tree we have.”
A.Mitchell and J.Jobling HMSO Forestry Commission 1984

  • Once it has reached a certain size it can put out new shoots from the base of the trunk. As these develop they coalesce with the main trunk, appearing as ‘fluting’, or ridges around all or part of the trunk. Sometimes these become thick enough to support the tree in the form of ‘buttressing’. When the original trunk decays this ‘secondary’ growth forms the new tree.
  • While the centre of a yew is rotting a branch may put down a root into the decaying material, so that in decay new life is being provided for. This phenomenon can be seen in many yews and is variously described as ‘internal stems’ or ‘internal roots’. (eg Bettws NewyddLinton,  Llanbadarn-y-garreg,  Llanddewi Rhydderch)
  • When a branch reaches the ground it can become embedded in the soil. From this point a new tree can develop, either remaining joined to the parent tree or living separately. Likewise a root close to the ground may give rise to new growth at some distance from the parent tree.
  • Becoming hollow can be advantageous in giving the tree greater flexibility, especially in windy conditions.
  • The oldest yews have often become two or more ‘fragment’ trees. These may still be connected to the common origin of the tree below ground, or each may exist in its own right as a separate tree, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling the chances of survival. (eg Ashbrittle, Stalisfield, Molash)
  • The astonishing durability of the dead ‘white’ wood that surrounds the decaying heartwood. This lasts so long that new growth from the base of the tree is given decades, if not centuries to establish itself on the ‘carapace’ before decay is complete. In this time the new or secondary growth can become well established.
  • Yews can fall and remain alive. As long as the smallest amount of root material remains connecting soil and tree, it can survive.(eg Benington,  Cofton Hackett ) 
  • The seeds are well dispersed by birds, particularly thrush and blackbird.
  • It has very few parasites, they are presumably affected by its poisonous qualities. Cecidomyia Taxi, sometimes called the gall midge, is the only insect to affect the yew, laying its eggs in the leaf buds. The larvae cause swelling of the buds and the leaves form into an ‘artichoke’. This appears to do the tree no harm and does not appear to spread from tree to tree.
  • Its thick evergreen canopy helps prevent moisture penetrating to the trunk and allowing rot to set in.
  • Only one fungus is regularly found on the yew, the yellow polyporus sulphureus. While hastening decay it does not appear to harm the tree.
  • It can grow on almost any soil with the exception of acid peats or in areas of poor drainage.
  • Because of its great ability to produce new shoots almost anywhere on its trunk and branches, it is able to quickly heal after damage.
    (Copyright © Tim Hills 2005)

What is the difference between veteran and ancient?
For the most recent definition of Ancient Veteran and Notable Yews go to An explanation of the overlapping age groups. 
Many a yew is described in the church guide, local history publication or village web site as ancient. This might be by virtue of its status as the oldest tree in the area, or just because it looks ancient. There is no reason why its locally accepted ‘ancient’ status should be changed.


Did they really make longbows from churchyard yews?
No. The volume of yew wood needed for war archery from the early 13th to the late 16th century was far too vast to be in any logical proportion to the wood which could have been grown in churchyards. After all of the yew stands in Britain and Ireland had been depleted, the English crown began to import yew wood from Spain and, after this source was exhausted as well, turned its eyes on the trade with the Hanse towns of the Northern and Baltic Seas. Gigantic amounts of yew wood came from the Alpine borders via Nuremberg and the river Rhine while the Polish tradesmen in Danzig received barge-loads of yew wood from the depths of the eastern European woodlands, namely in western Russia and in the Carpathian Mountains. During the first half of the 16th century Bavaria and Austria alone exported 0.6 - 1.0

MILLION yew staves, by 1568 there was not a single yew left in Bavaria! When Elizabeth I decreed on October 26, 1595, to replace the military longbows with firearms, she did so because there was no tradable yew wood left in the whole of Europe! Not because firearms were superior. On the contrary, even at the time of the battle of Waterloo, almost 200 years later, firearms still were no match for the fire speed and precision of the yew longbow.

Summary: It is not true that we have ancient yews in churchyards because of the medieval need for longbows, but that ancient yews have survived despite the need for longbows, because of the churchyards (where they were protected from mundane purposes).
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

Why are there none in my area?
The distribution of ancient/veteran yews in England and Wales is uneven. I am unaware of any research that attempts to explain this.
We do know that yews grow on any soil except for acid peat, that they thrive on chalk and limestone and can grow in exposed places. They can tolerate harsh weather conditions and do not seem to be affected by atmospheric pollution.
Robert Bevan-Jones describes their distribution in The Ancient Yew p6. “Large yews with 16ft (5m) girth are rare or unknown in Cornwall, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. These eastern counties are bereft of any yews of more than 400 years of age, nor do they appear to have any historically recorded large yews.”
(Copyright © Tim Hills 2005)

How poisonous is the yew?
Poison is found in all parts except for the fleshy fruit.
The poison is called Taxine. “The alkaloid ephedrine, as well as a volatile oil and traces of a cyanogenic glycoside, taxiphyllin, are also present.” HMSO 1984
The leaves are more toxic than the seed.
(Paul Greenwood 2005)

Effect on animals
There is contradictory evidence about the effect on animals of eating yew foliage. There are many recorded instances of animals known to have died from grazing on yew leaves. There are also reports of animals eating leaves without suffering any ill effects. It is not unknown for small quantities of leaves to be added to supplement winter fodder for cattle.
Poisonous plants in Britain and their effects on animals and man published by the HMSO in 1984 is however unambiguous in its advice: “……..yew should never be fed to animals…….”
(Copyright © Tim Hills 2005)

Effect on humans
Fifty to one hundred grams of chopped leaves is considered fatal to adults.
A world-wide investigation in 1998 (Krenzelok et al.) shows 11,197 records of yew poisoning (from all Taxus species) in humans (96.4% in children less than 12 years old) and found no deaths. A 1992 article in Forensic Science International (Van Ingen et al.) stated that only 10 authenticated cases of fatal human poisoning by T. baccata had been recorded in the previous 31 years, and that they were all deliberate.
Krenzelok, E.P., Jacobsen, T.D. & Aronis, J. (1998) "Is the yew really poisonous to you?", Journal of Toxicology Clinical Toxicology, 36, 219-223.
Van Ingen, G., Visser, R., Peltenburg, H., Van Der Ark, A.M. & Voortman, M. (1992) "Sudden unexpected death due to Taxus poisoning. A report of five cases, with review of the literature". Forensic Science International, 56, 81-87.
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

I observed a craftsman turning wooden spindles at a lathe. When working with yew he put on a mask with a respirator and made sure the extractor fan was working properly. He explained that yew dust should not be inhaled and that anyone working with yew wood should be aware of health and safety implications.

(Paul Greenwood 2005)

What is the mythological significance of the yew tree?
During the Bronze and Iron Ages the different cultures developed their particular characteristics, their sets of moral and law codes, esthetics, language, customs, and so on. As part of the process, the ancient idea of the Tree of Life also changed to a multitude of forms. Often, however, it remained linked with the notion of a female deity or mother goddess. In the pre-hieroglyphic script of ancient Egypt, for example, the term for giving birth is directly derived from the word for tree. This shows what impact the Tree of Life once had on philosophy. In Egypt, the mother goddess was Hathor, and her tree, the sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus) gave food and life in this life, while after death the ancient Egyptian expected to meet the goddess and her tree again to grant him eternal life. In ancient cosmology, the Tree of Life includes the process of death.

And so it is with the yew in the northern temperate zone. Its links with eternal life, death and rebirth are legion in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon and Nordic traditions, as well as those in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. Local customs and rural traditions regarding the yew can eventually all be traced back to these ancient concepts. Christian churchyard traditions blended smoothly with these ancient roots, the yew remained a symbol of eternity. The terminology, however, changed from 'rebirth' to 'resurrection'.

By the 13th century, when the pre-Christian Nordic traditions (the Edda) were written down by a Christian monk, the northern European mythological image of the Cosmic Tree – Yggdrasil – had lost a big part of the nurturing, 'female' qualities mentioned above. Its foremost purpose now was to uphold the heavenly order of creation, and to deliver the runes to Odin and thus to humankind. This links Yggdrasil with the – also ancient (and international) – traditions of the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil).

The original sources identify Yggdrasil as vetgrønster vida (= most evergreen tree) and barraskr (= needle-ash). Unfortunately, some historians in the 19th century took this all too literally and declared Yggdrasil an ash-tree, a 'myth' that still persists. But the ash is not evergreen nor is it a needle-tree, not to mention that there is no evidence whatsoever for a Scandinavian ash worship as opposed to plenty of material regarding sacred uses of the yew.
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

What is the connection to the Tree of Life?
The Tree of Life is a concept which can be traced back to the Neolithic (Young Stone Age). From there it developed as part of the philosophy of most ancient cultures, whether it be the 'high civilizations', such as Egypt, Persia or Greece, or the more nature-based tribes who dwelt further north. Essentially, the Tree of Life is an image of the whole universe, or at least of planet earth, which embodies the notion that all life is related to each other and that all that lives is holy. Every animal, human or plant is a leaf on this tree. The symbol of Tree of Life is strongly related to the Cosmic Tree which has the stars as its fruits.

To serve as an 'earthly representation' of the Tree of Life, different cultures chose different tree species, according to which species grew in the region and – since all tree species have different characteristics and qualities – which tree character resonated best with the spiritual ideals emphasized by any given culture. In early Sumer, e.g., it most probably was the cedar-of-Lebanon, in pre-historic Persia the plane-tree served this role, while in the depths of Siberia the birch is the World Tree of the shamanic tradition. For the early Celts in Ireland, the Germanic tribes of Scandinavia and Germany, and some Slavic peoples in south-western Russia it was the yew tree. Often we find that the associations of the sacred tree with the divine forces (no matter whether one God or many deities) is utilized by kings to justify their claim to the throne. Hence we find traditions like emperor's staffs or other regalia being made of yew wood, and we find evidence linking the yew with royalty as far afield as Ireland or Japan.
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

Why are yews in churchyards?
Firstly, there are, of course, (ancient) yews outside churchyards as well. But in woodlands they don't grow so big and impressive as in churchyards because they have less light and space. Also, Britain has lost most of its ancient woodland, and even more so, lost most of the wild yews due to the early medieval longbow production. Churchyards are protective enclosures. But there is much more to it:
Investigating the yew from the viewpoint of comparative religious studies we come across an astonishing degree of parallels in the way this tree was perceived and treated by otherwise the most different cultures and times. In a nutshell, we can say that the three main themes which occur time and again in yew traditions ar

a) the sacred (the yew as part of a sanctuary, or being the sanctuary, e.g. the medieval tree sanctuary at Uppsala, Sweden; yews in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan)
b) death and burial rites (e.g. British Isles, Spain, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, Japan)
c) kingship, royal family, leadership (e.g. Ireland, Russia, Japan).

In many pre-Christian religions (e.g. in ancient Greece) the yew had been connected with the journey to the underworld, with the gate of death and the soul's transition from this life to the next. For all we can say, the yew was seen as a kind of protector of the soul during this delicate process. In Druidic Britain, this was conceived as part of the 'natural law of reincarnation' (i.e. a soul becomes reborn on earth as another person). As an evergreen plant the yew was a symbol for the regenerative power of nature. As a very ancient tree indeed it was the most perfect symbol for everlasting life. In Christianity, only the pretext changed: together with other evergreens the yew was acknowledged as a symbol for the Resurrection and particularly employed at Easter celebrations.

It is feasible that some of the ancient yews are older than the adjacent church buildings because Christianity took over countless sacred places from the previous religious traditions. In 601 Pope Gregory advised not to destroy places of Pagan worship but to convert them into Christian Churches.
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

Can our yew be protected by law?
Sadly not (yet). Unlike other countries, e.g. Germany or Poland, the UK never accepted Taxus baccata for the List of Endangered Species on which it was put about a century ago because all its stands in mixed woodlands are in decline (despite the yew obviously being widely distributed in parks, gardens and churchyards). This is ironic because the vast majority of ancient yews is to be found in Britain.

The only national option is the Tree Preservation Order (TPO) which has to be applied for in each single case. As it stands the TPO is not even sufficient to protect old or ancient trees of outstanding and undisputed historical significance. Trees that are not visible to the public, for example, are unlikely to qualify for a TPO. Also, trees considered to be dead, dying or dangerous are specifically excluded! Which doesn't give an ancient yew a chance because it can always be interpreted as dying – while other parts of it regenerate though. Even many of the 50 veteran trees (20% of them yews) that the Tree Council has marked to celebrate the Queen's Golden Jubilee could be ruled out from TPO protection.

Hence the Tree Council has started a campaign "calling on the government to change this situation as it reviews current provisions for protecting the historic environment." This is supported by most members of the Tree Council, including The Ancient Tree Forum, National Trust, Woodland Trust, to name but a few.
The latest Press Release of the Tree Council can be found at http://www.treecouncil.org.uk/
We keep you informed.
(Copyright © Fred Hageneder 2005)

Where do I find a good tree surgeon?
This is unfortunately not as straightforward as it should be. Correspondence suggests it is a hit and miss operation. For the moment contacting your local council tree department is the only advice we are able to give. However we hope it will not be too long before we can present a list of accredited tree surgeons with expertise in preserving ancient, but healthy yews.

Our yew has died. Should we remove it?
NO. Leave the stump just in case and replant elsewhere, perhaps nearby.

Can I join the Ancient Yew Group?
Development of this web site and the group that manages it depends on the level of interest shown. If you have suggestions about how you might become more involved in helping meet some of the aims of the group, please let us know. We shall review the subject of membership once the site has been running for a few months.

How do I measure a yew? 
The Tree Register of the British Isles (TROBI) and the Tree Register of Ireland (TROI) agreed to the following main categories for their survey work. This was published in The Tree Register’s newsletter No 10 (2000/2001) as follows:

Category A: Trees growing with a clearly defined single clean stem measured at 1.5m (eg Plymtree)

Category B: Trees growing with a clearly defined single stem which have natural features that increase the girth at 1.5m and have to be measured at a height other than 1.5m (eg. East Chinnock,   Edington,   Froxfield Green)

Category C: Trees growing without a clearly defined single stem at ground level, such as multiple stems or coppice. (eg   Buxted,  Llanelltyd,  Shirwell,  Wilmington,  Woolland
These categories were successfully used for a year. It was then felt appropriate to include details of a new category:

Category D: Trees that are relics made up of separate parts, un-measurable and/or not comparable with another tree. (eg   Dunster,  Llanfihangel Rhydithon,   Llandre,    Llangernyw
Few ancient yews fit into category A. Even measurement at ground level is not straight forward procedure:
Sloping ground ( Holywell Dingle)
Uneven ground ( Nantmel)
Soil piled against the trunk ( Elworthy)
Exposed root material ( Boughton Monchelsea)
Leaning  (Churchill in Somerset,  Powick,  Llanbadarn-y-garreg)
Fallen (Benington,  Cofton Hackett)
Ground level raised inside a retaining wall (Compton Dundon, St Dogmaels)
And where do you start at  Llanvapley and  Yarpole?.

John Lowe (p48) thought “the ground line is fortunately the right place, ‘for the most aged yews’ have their trunks deformed by knobs and excrescences that they cannot allow of comparison anywhere else and that the stem is so covered with young spray that it is difficult to pass a tape measure around it, except at the ground.” He goes on to say that in some trees the ground line exaggerates measurements because of the swelling of the roots. He considered the best compromise to measure at the ground and also at 3ft.
My girth recordings are not intended as a scientific record, merely to give an idea of size. I have however found that when remeasuring trees girth has usually varied by only a few inches.

If the purpose of measurement is to make comparisons with the past and calculate growth rates, we need to be aware of the many objections that can be raised to the accuracy of these comparisons.

Was it measured in the same place?
Where there is more than one tree – was the correct one measured?
Has there been soil erosion or has it been scraped away by animals, exposing the roots?
By how much has the ground level risen in the churchyard?
Was the original tree replaced by another growing in the same place?
Is a large girth caused by two trees that have grown together?
Is there deformity caused by “knobs and excrescences?”
Have shoots, epicormic and twiggy growth or ivy affected the measurement?
Were early recordings taken by people with a vested interest in their tree being the largest?
Some trees measured over time appear to both swell and diminish. Has a portion of trunk been lost? Is the main growth internal?
(Copyright © Tim Hills 2005)