October 17th 2022


The race is on to find what lies behind ancient yew trees’ mystery decline

Tree-ring research is underway to discover why some of the extraordinarily old and valuable yew trees growing within Newlands Corner on the North Downs have died. It will be carried out by Toby Hindson of the UK’s Ancient Yew Group, with the support of The Conservation Foundation, and is a key part of a multidisciplinary effort to solve the problem of yew decline.

Estimated to be at least a thousand years old, the Newlands Corner yews are one of the oldest large populations of wild yews growing anywhere in the world.  Millennial yews are extremely rare in the wild, the majority are found in churchyards and their loss would change the appearance of the traditional church with its yew standing beside it, which has survived for generations.

The research study at Newlands Corner hopes to discover what has been causing the deaths of trees there, so that lessons can be learned to save and protect ancient yews throughout the country.  It will involve exploring tree rings to discover when the mysterious agent began to affect the trees and discover the crucial component in understanding what is happening to the ancient yews of Newlands Corner and why.

“Discovery of a ‘signature of decline’ in ancient yew tree rings would be a great coup – an example of the meeting of high science and conservation,” explains Toby Hindson. “It is this kind of knowledge which can reliably inform better practice and solutions to conservation problems. A side effect of this work may help in understanding the resilience of the old yews to climate change and water extraction.  The site chronology that will be produced is a very powerful and versatile scientific instrument.”

The Conservation Foundation is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary and for much of that time it has championed the yew tree and its ancient heritage.  David Shreeve, director of the Foundation explains, “We are naturally anxious to discover what has been affecting the ancient yews at Newlands Corner, so that everything can be done to conserve and protect other ancient yews.”  He adds, “We celebrated the year 2000 by distributing almost 8000 young yews to churches propagated from ancient trees some estimated to be alive at the time of Christ.”

In a special episode of the New Scientist podcast, host Rowan Hooper visits Newlands Corner and meets some of the yew specialists working to save these precious trees in research funded by The Conservation Foundation. Listen here.

Conservation Foundation Heritage Tree programme

The Yew project is part of The Conservation Foundation’s Heritage Tree programme, created to celebrate our 40th Anniversary.

Please support our work with some of the country’s most loved trees so that future generations will be able to understand and explain the importance of trees and their role in biodiversity. Donations can be made securely online. 

Photograph of Newlands Yew in serious decline by Toby Hindson.