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logos of the Church in Wales and the AYG in front of the ancient yew tree at Llansoy. Photo © Peter Norton
logos of the Church in Wales and the AYG in front of the ancient yew tree at Llansoy. Photo © Peter Norton

Protection for the ancient yews of Wales

June 2014

Since its foundation in 2004, the Ancient Yew Group (AYG) has worked hard to instigate effective conservation measures for British yews. Our database so far lists over 1370 ancient and veteran yew trees, about three quarters of them in churchyards. These are the oldest trees in Britain, and among the oldest in Europe. But of all countries, the UK has no legal protection for such wonders of nature.

For ten years the AYG addressed Church authorities, hoping they would one day decree yew protection from the top down to each parish. Too many yews have been felled or mutilated following rash, unreflected, and uninformed decisions by over-active church wardens or for the sake of church extensions.

We communicated with officials in the Church of England, from archdeacons and bishops to the Ecclesiastical Judges. But we had to discover that the mills of church authority grind slowly, and we began to wonder if our lifetime will be long enough to see any changes.

Then in 2014, something unexpected happened.

While we had been targeting the Church of England, assuming that the Church in Wales would be even harder to reach, it was the latter which suddenly announced a real change.

In June 2014, Alex Glanville, head of property services at the Church in Wales, made public the Church’s new commitment to look after all their ancient and veteran yews, to issue certificates for each parish with one or more ancient yew in their grounds, and to decree that no arboricultural work on any old yew shall be carried out without first consulting the AYG or an AYG-approved arboriculturalist.

Since 95% of the ancient yews in Wales are located in churchyards, this was a breakthrough, just after our 10th anniversary.

How did this miracle come to be? While the ecclesiastical ‘management level’ in the Church of England will inevitably take years of bishops’ conferences to get anywhere, in the Church in Wales Mr Glanville is blessed with the authority to represent the management of all churchyards at a practical level. It is unfortunate that the Church of England has no general house-keeper, meaning that hundreds of individual parishes need to be contacted.

Alex Glanville became a yew enthusiast when he saw a yew slide talk with live music played on a yew-wood harp at a conference organized by Caring for God’s Acre (CFGA), a charity devoted to churchyard ecology and nature conservation, and long since a cherished ally of the AYG. A meeting was arranged so that Andrea Gilpin (CFGA) Tim Hills (AYG) and Alex Glanville could seek a way forward in the protection of yews in Welsh churchyards.

“It is incredible to think that some of the yew trees in our churchyards are older than our faith itself.”

Alex Glanville, head of property services at the Church in Wales

Unfortunately, the media wave which covered the launch of the Church in Wales project got mixed up with a mis-guided rumour that the ancient yew at Defynnog in Powys may be 5,000 years old. This was a blow to the AYG’s ongoing efforts to bring yew age estimates to a reasonable level, because exaggerations like this provoke people who threaten yews to then dismiss all yew specialness as mumbo-jumbo.

Showing wisdom and common sense, the certificates sent out by the Church in Wales to parishes with ancient or veteran yews refrain from incorrect and sometimes absurd age claims and classify trees according to the categories developed and used by the Ancient Yew Group and other British tree organizations.

yew tree certificate by the Church in Wales (2015)
yew tree certificate by the Church in Wales (2015)

Update 2020

The five naturalist founding members of the Ancient Yew Group are no longer alone. Tree scientists and tree management professionals have joined the group, while others lend their support from outside. Cooperation between the AYG and the Church in Wales continues to develop with the goal of setting up a network of advice (and careful action where necessary) from yew-certified arboriculturalists so that yews are cared for in all parishes across Wales.

Further reading:
1 Church in Wales campaign to protect yew trees. BBC News, 4 June 2014.
2 Greater recognition of value of yews in Welsh churches urged. Horticulture Week, 4 June 2014.

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