Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

How ancient are British yew trees?

Posted on by royvickery |

Some 20 years ago the television botanist David Bellamy of the Conservation Foundation made extravagant claims regarding the age of Britain’s older yew (Taxus baccata) trees.  According to a report in The Times of 3 October 1998:

‘We … know that ever since people arrived upon these shores they have been in the habit of planting yew trees in acts of sanctification, close to where they eventually hoped to be laid to rest.’

This assertion was questioned by Jeremy Harte and Roy Vickery in The Times letter page on 6 October, stimulating a response from Bellamy on 13 October:

‘My article … talked in terms of “guestimates” using all the evidence to hand, which includes the girths of trees whose planting dates are a matter of historical record.  We have raised an hypothesis concerning the potential age of larger specimens. Surely this is a scientific procedure? … I could close my mind to myths but I find it more exciting to use a little bit of imagination.  Perhaps the yews are more than two thousand years old.  With open minds we are trying to find out.’

According to the original Times article the Fortingall yew, ‘could be more than 8,000 years old, making it the oldest tree in the world’.

The Conservation Foundation issued certificates providing ‘guestimates’ of the ages of ancient yews.  The Llangernyw yew, in Conwy, north Wales, was thought to be 4,000-5,000 years old.  But according to recent research, published in the Quarterly Journal of Forestry, and reported in The Times of 27 June 2019, estimates the Llangernyw yew to be 1,600 years old, and the Fortingall yew to be about 2,000 years old.  Similarly the Ankerwycke yew, at Runnymeade, Surrey, is thought to be 900, rather than 2,500, years old.

Image: yew tree in St Michael and All Angels churchyard, Bampton, Devon, March 2014.  The wall around the trunk is said to have been built to prevent sheep from eating its bark.  At one time the wall incorporated a seat running around it, but when it was rebuilt the cost of replacing the seat was considered to be too great.

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