Partner blog: Now is the time for better protections for ancient trees
Janis Fry, campaigner for protection of ancient yews, tells us why they deserve the same protections as heritage buildings this National Tree Week
Britain has the largest collection of ancient yews in the world. Just in time for National Tree Week, the Campaign for Legal Protection of Ancient Yews, which I lead, received the really good news that English Heritage has made the Ankerwycke Yew at Runnymede, site of the sealing of the Magna Carta, a Scheduled Monument! The penalties for damaging such a monument are imprisonment and or unlimited fines. This is the first ancient tree to receive the sort of protections which many buildings half as old as the Ankerwycke Yew enjoy.
This is exactly the level of protection the Campaign has been calling for! We very much hope that other ancient yews (that is, 2,000 or more years old) across Britain are given the same degree of protection and Scheduled Monument status to guarantee their survival for future generations. These other ancient yews are of similar national historic and heritage importance to the yew tree at Runnymede. This means yews such as the 5,000 year old yew at Fortingall, those at Borrowdale, immortalised by Wordsworth in his poem as ‘The Fraternal Four’, and those at Merddon castle, the ancient British fortification. These trees are all historic, ancient, living monuments, far older than most of the buildings we protect and just as important in heritage terms.
Of course, in this time when everyone is talking about tree planting on a massive scale to combat climate change, it is worth remembering that trees are more than simply nature’s ingenious carbon capture technology – they are sources of wonder and connection. Many of our ancient yews were planted by pre-Christian civilisations from old Iberia, Armenia and other kingdoms in that region, for reasons we can only guess at, but which were often to do with the sacredness of the tree and our connection with divinity. In the case of the Ankerwycke or Runnymede Yew, the likelihood is that it was the Egyptians who brought a branch or cutting of a sacred yew to Britain from their homeland and planted it by what they would have seen as a sacred river – the Thames. Their knowledge of the flooding of the Nile would have ensured the new site was investigated properly before planting and to this day, although flooding happens all around the area, the yew tree is unaffected. This yew has been revered through the ages and Saxon Kings were inaugurated beneath its branches. The Ankerwycke yew has now put down a large layered branch and trees like these can become entire groves like those at Druid’s Grove, on the North Downs or the ancient yew grove at Kingley Vale near Chichester. It is an act of hope, that one tree planted can become a forest!
In 1988, a campaign celebrating and marking our British yews was first set up by David Bellamy and the Conservation Foundation and launched by Country Living magazine, to gather information and promote awareness of ancient yews. This campaign led on to the Millennium Yews project, where cuttings were taken from 2,000-year-old yew trees and grown on to produce new trees to celebrate 2,000 years of the Christian faith. The sixty parent yews included the ancient yews of Buxted, Linton, Crowhurst, Surrey and Farringdon. The project was a huge success with around 7,000 young yew trees distributed to various parishes all over the UK. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the planting project. David Shreeve of the Conservation Foundation said of these trees, “They were planted in the spirit of a living link with the birth of Jesus and as a symbol that if we wanted this millennium yew to live for another 2,000 years, we would need to care for and cherish our local environment.”
Twenty years on, we are still pushing for the protections these magnificent, sacred trees deserve. Please join the over 250,000 people who have signed our petition to secure stronger protections for Britain’s irreplaceable yews. And if anyone has a millennium yew planting in their parish and a record of the ancient yew it was grown from, the Conservation Foundation are now making a record of which of these trees are thriving, where they are and what tree they were grown from originally. So please, if you have such information, contact the Conservation Foundation with the details.
Janis Fry is a campaigner, artist and author.