…we believe there are approximately 35 yews in Wales between the ages of 2 and 5,000 years and 82 in the rest of Britain, making a total of 117 yew trees. 3 of the 4 ancient yews over 5,000 years old, are in Wales…The vast majority of these trees are in churchyards. With the demise of the Church in our times and the closure of many redundant churches, these buildings and some lands, with or surrounded by yews, are being sold off. The need to protect these ancient yew trees, is becoming more urgent with the change in ownership and stewarding. Although in the past, the Church has been responsible for having some yews cut down, on the whole, the yews have been afforded a good degree of protection until now.
Since then, the petition has gained new ground, with over 232,000 signatures to date.
There is debate among dendrochronologists as to how old some of these yews actually are: it’s difficult to date the trees by their rings. But whether they are really 5,000 years old, or “only” 2,000, Fry believes that they should be protected, and her petition seems to have struck a chord among the general public.
According to an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Fry became intrigued by the trees through an accidental visit to the then-neglected gardens at Aberglasney, in Carmarthenshire in Wales. (These gardens have since been restored). Making her way down an overgrown path, she “fell in to this most amazing ancient tunnel of yews. It was like a great gothic cathedral. I just thought, ‘This is the eighth wonder of the world.’”
Tree preservationist Rob McBride of not-for-profit Shropshire company Treespect, echoes Fry’s concerns about yew trees, noting that churches rarely call in expensive tree surgeons to deal with their trees and just hack them down instead. He concurs with Fry that protections for churches should extend to the ancient trees which line their graveyards.
“In 2011 there was a very old yew tree felled in Shropshire, it was more than 2,000 years old and in March this year, a 200-year-old tree was cut down in the grounds of Quinta Evangelical Church.”
It’s not just the church – landowners generally, McBride reports, resent what they regard as attempts to control their own properties. Fry goes further, believing that the lack of legal protection is as a direct result of interference by the church itself.
“If we’ve got the largest collection of ancient yews in the world, why aren’t they protected? It’s because the church won’t have it. The church has always considered such moves an unnecessary challenge to its authority and jurisdiction over its own property.”
In response, the Church of England notes that there are measures in place to protect trees, via a piece of legislation known as a Tree Protection Order (TPO). However, these can be slow and difficult to put in place and monitor (the writer of this piece can testify to this, having had a property sale held up by an alleged TPO which turned out to apply to a copper beech a quarter of a mile away). The Church of England is also reluctant to add to the work of its church managers, who tend to be overstretched, and has also suggested that the age of the yews in some of its properties is a testament to the church’s powers of guardianship.
However, Alex Glanville, speaking for the Church of Wales, says that churches have not always dealt well with pruning or generally looking after their yews, although he would not necessarily recommend going beyond a TPO.
“Clearly we want them celebrated and it’s a really important thing that we happen to own. I’d love them to have special acknowledgment and maybe special [legal] protection is a way of doing that. But if things get designated something, is that actually going to improve things?”
Paul Powlesland, a barrister and the founder of Lawyers for Nature, says that TPOs tend only to be enforced if the tree is actually in danger and the law is often none too clear:
The punishments [fines] for breaching a TPO are quite simply not reflective of the importance of these trees. It’s an anomaly in our law that we haven’t grappled properly with the idea of protecting living things. If an ancient oak was chopped down in 1700 and turned into a building, that oak in the building would now be protected. If it carried on growing, it wouldn’t be protected.
Lawyers for Nature was established as an organization that aims to help British citizens support the natural world through legislation. It provides fact sheets, and legal assistance for those who want to legally challenge threats to the natural world but who can’t afford steep fees. As an example, it gives advice on how to streamline applications for Tree Preservation Orders. The yew campaign is within its remit and its website (below) has been reporting on the progress of the petition.
Fry attended a meeting at the House of Lords in July with supporters of the campaign, who included Baroness Jenny Jones of the Green Party and MP Owen Paterson, along with Andy Egan of the International Tree Foundation, Rob McBride, Paul Powlesland and arborist Jerry Ross. Others a included Jon Stokes and Holly Chetan Welsh of the Tree Council, broadcaster and nature writer Paul Evans and Russell Ball, the founder of Fund4Trees, who was also one time European Tree Officer. Also represented were the Woodland Trust, Conservation Foundation and the Ancient Tree Forum.
Powlesland says that the yew campaign:
“…speaks to who we are as a country. What is this land? What does it mean to be British? It’s a chance for politicians to make themselves part of history. These yews have existed for thousands of years. Hopefully, if we protect them they will still exist when this entire civilisation is consigned to the history books. That’s a magical thing.”