Newlands Corner yew trees are dying and nobody knows why

An environmental expert said that research being carried out on ancient yew trees in Newlands Corner could provide an “important” step in helping similar trees across the country. The giant evergreen trees, often associated with churchyards, are under the threat of decline within the Surrey beauty spot after some of them were found to have died.

The Conservation Foundation co-founder and director, David Shreeve, told SurreyLive: “We think Newlands Corner is really unique in having so many ancient yews all growing together. It’s very unusual to find yew trees growing in a clump if you like.

“You could often have ancient yews in churchyards, for example, but when you investigate them it’s all one tree – it’s just sent up various shoots over a thousand years or more. But at Newlands Corner there are so many of them that they are obviously separate trees as well.”

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Tree-ring research is being carried out by Ancient Yew Group’s Toby Hindson – supported by The Conservation Foundation, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary – to find out why some of the extraordinarily old and valuable yew trees in Newlands Corner have died. It forms a key part of a multidisciplinary effort to solve the problem of yew decline.

The research involves 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.

Image of yew tree in Newlands Corner
The yew trees in Newlands Corner, which can live for thousands of years, are under a mysterious threat
(Image: The Conservation Foundation)

Toby said: “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. 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.”

David added: “We’ve got these great guys who visit ancient yews and take an interest in them and Newlands Corner is a bit of a focal point as it’s such an unusual feature. It’s not very well known that there is this really unique bit of nature with the collection of yew trees there.

“It’s very important that someone has noticed something is happening to the trees because you tend to think of years going on and on. People take them for granted but trees are like humans and they can get problems

The Newlands Corner yews estimated to be at least a thousand years old and are one of the oldest large populations of wild yews growing anywhere in the world. Millennial yews are rare in the wild and their loss would change the long-standing appearance of the traditional church with its yew standing beside it.

David said: “What we want to check out is just what is causing the problems at Newlands Corner because the ancient yews around this country might all be suffering and no one’s really taking any notice of their condition. So it’s important to look very closely and say ‘this is just a problem local to Newlands’ or if it’s not then there are certain measures that might be taken.

“We can’t change the climate but if we knew that it was caused by climate change then there might be some way of helping all the other trees around the country. So Newlands could be a very important bit of research.”

He added that locals should be “proud” that their trees could be providing clues about what is happening to other trees in the UK. David said: “Some trees could be 5,000 years and it’s an amazing bit of our heritage that we’re hoping to look after for future generations.

“If there’s anything to be learned from Newlands Corner then we’re going to try and find out. We know that some are already suffering and what we want to do is nip it in the bud, so to speak.”

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