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Caring for God's trees

How action to protect an ancient churchyard yew in Pennant Melangell could be a useful test case in the campaign to get the Welsh government to provide for the protection of ancient and special trees

Ancient yews, of which there are many in Wales, are often associated with ancient, pre-Christian burial grounds. They hold a particular fascination as a legacy from distant ancestors.

Recently Ancient Tree Hunt volunteer verifier, Rob McBride, was contacted about a yew at the pilgrim church of St Melangell at Pennant Melangell in Powys to make the acquaintance of its fabulous ancient yew.

Ancient yew, St Melangell churchyard
Ancient yew in the churchyard of St Melangell. Photo: Rob McBride

This ancient yew happens to spread its crown outside the churchyard boundary into a neighbouring field. Rob was alarmed to discover that the farmer was proposing to to take his chainsaw to some of the boughs, taking them right back to near the trunk because yew foliage is highly poisonous to stock. In non-specialist hands, this could have potentially very serious consequences for one of the UK’s most ancient, ancient trees.

Battling snow and cancelling other commitments, Rob swung into action to see if a speedy response could be negotiated while further advice was sought on the long-term management of the yews.

Fortunately Rob persuaded the farmer to accept some fencing, just beyond the drip line of the yew, so that the tree and the stock could continue to exist alongside each other in peace. As Rob describes:

"The landowner had indicated that he wanted to keep animals in this field, sheep most probably, and that he wanted the tree cutting back. After our initial lively discussion, we discussed - more calmly - installing some fencing across the end of the field to protect the yews. The landowner had seemed agreeable to that plan of action."

Not wasting any time, Rob bought some fence posts and headed back to the site:

"On arrival I had a good chat with the landowner and his wife about the significance of the yew trees that are hanging over the churchyard wall into his field. It was very fortuitous as he was going on holiday the very next day. We discussed the placing of the fencing and he was very amenable to suggestions as to where would be the most effective for protection of the trees & animals without taking up too much of the field. In the end we were able to reduce the area he had said could be fenced off, as I did not feel it needed as much."

Ancient yew, Pennant Melangell
One of the ancient yews at St Melangell, now fenced to protect from nearby stock. Photo: Rob McBride

Not only was this good news in the very short term, allowing the farmer to carry on with his plans without the tree being affected, but it gave Rob the chance to meet to another local landowner who has been propogating yew trees, and the church's vicar, both of whom had plenty of ideas for improving the churchyard and possible sources of funding. Rob will be meeting with Powys Council on site soon to discuss TPOs: the tree in question is not currently protected.

National implications
As Ancient Tree conservation adviser, Jill Butler explains, this case illustrates clearly what is needed for the long term care of nationally important trees.

  • First, there is a need for much greater awareness of their value– this is a priceless yew that could only be replaced over thousands of years.
  • Second, we need specialist people on hand who can advise and negotiate the right sort of care so that none of these trees are lost through lack of understanding and poor practice.
  • And third, we need some sort of small funding source so that owners can be encouraged to take the right management action.

Will Wales take the lead?
For some years in Wales, the Woodland Trust has been campaigning for the new body – Natural Resources Wales (vesting day 1 April 2013) to have the power to provide advice and funding for Wales’ most wrinkly and gnarly of trees. Only last week, the Synedd in Cardiff discussed the Trust’s petition which was supported by over 5,000 signatures. They agreed to send a letter to Natural Resources Wales to endorse the proposal and to ask for it to be high up on their agenda.

This stage of the campaign coincides with the publication of a new book by the Ancient Tree Forum: Ancient and other veteran Trees: Further guidance on management.

Ancient tree management book

This small charity works in close partnership with the Woodland Trust. Under the editorship of one of the leading arboricultural advisors, Dr David Lonsdale, they have produced this authoritative guidance on the special care required for managing ancient and other veteran trees.

Soon perhaps, Wales will lead the UK in the care of its nationally important trees. Let us hope that other countries will take up the baton and that the future of our most important trees can be made a bit safer not just for us but for many generations into the future.

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Big Belly oak, Savernake Forest
The Big Belly oak in Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, one the most important ancient tree sites in the UK - see the latest data report on important sites.

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