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Oldest tree looks under the weather

01 May 2015

EDWARD PARKER/THE WOODLAND TRUST

THE oldest living tree in England, the Ashbrittle yew, sits atop a hill in a remote village in Somerset, astride an ancient burial mound. It pre-dates its next-door neighbour, St John the Baptist's, by at least 2000 years, and is believed to have been already well grown when Stonehenge was built.

Now it is 3000 years old, and there are concerns about the health of the yew. "It is looking pretty sick and pretty awful," one of its custodians, Charles Doble, a churchwarden, said.

Mr Doble said that the community was not "unduly worried", and believed that the tree might recover on its own. Publicity over the plight of the tree, however, has led to a call from the Woodland Trust for an urgent survey of all Britain's ancient trees.

The Trust said: "This great old yew has helped highlight a problem the Woodland Trust is very concerned about. This tree is one of our oldest and most special trees in the UK and deserves the specialist care it needs. The UK is immensely important for ancient yews; there is a phenomenal number here compared with the rest of Europe - more than 1000, in fact."

The Trust's expert in ancient trees, Jill Butler, said: "These living monuments make an important contribution to the nation, which needs to be officially recognised and protected, just as our historic buildings are.

"As they age, many [trees] may need expert advice and care - how does the nation want to ensure that this legacy is properly managed, now and for future generations? Ensuring these trees are looked after costs money, so who should pay? The Woodland Trust is taking this issue forward by calling for a Register of Trees of National Special Interest or Very Important Trees. It's a question, here, that the best advice should be available to the church to manage the tree."

Mr Doble said that tree experts from the council had, from time to time, suggested lopping off branches but the church believed it was best to leave the tree alone. Tree experts have said that the ancient tree might just be going through a bad patch, and would recover from it.

Mr Doble, whose family has been in the village since the Reformation, and whose great grandfather restored the church, said: "The yew is looking a bit sick but we're not that worried about it. Yews were put in churchyards because they were seen as everlasting, and if someone came and cut some of it with a chainsaw - heaven forbid - it would probably regrow. . . It's said to be the oldest living thing in England, and the best thing we can do is leave it alone."

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