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Churchyard Trees

Volume 527: debated on Thursday 12 May 2011

4. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55124)

8. What steps the Church Commissioners are taking to ensure that ancient trees in churchyards are protected. (55128)

Ancient yews are defined as trees older than 250 years and possibly as much as 5,000 years old. Yew trees were felled on a huge scale for English longbows between the 13th and 16th centuries. The yew tree has been an important part of historical religious practice, and in Britain the Celts and Romans thought it to be associated with immortality, regeneration and protection from evil.

In large numbers of cases, the ancient yew trees in churchyards are significantly older than the churches occupying the surrounding land. Many yew trees trace their history back to sacred groves and other such significant sacred places of earlier civilisation. There are eight sites of ancient yew trees recorded in Warwickshire and 12 in Cheshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As well as being the final resting place of the great bard, William Shakespeare, Holy Trinity church in Stratford-on-Avon has 12 yew trees representing the 12 tribes of Israel and is home to a yew tree that is estimated to be several hundred years old. Does my hon. Friend agree that the protection of such trees is extremely important in maintaining the historic settings of our great churches?

It is fantastic that Holy Trinity, Stratford, has planted 12 new yew trees, but my hon. Friend highlights the fact that a number of older yew trees, designated as ancient or veteran, have not had adequate statutory protection. The Church of England is determined to do all that it can to ensure that every yew tree in our churchyards is properly protected.

It is excellent to hear from my hon. Friend that ancient yew trees are being preserved and protected in that way, but even with best practice no tree will last for ever. What is being done to introduce new trees to our churchyards so that future generations might enjoy that attractive part of our churchyard heritage?

I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend that on the eve of the millennium the Conservation Foundation charity presented churches throughout the country with some 8,500 young yew trees, propagated from trees estimated to be at least 2,000 years old. We are now asking churches that planted millennium yews to record their growth and condition on Biodiversity day, which is on Sunday 22 May. I hope, however, that a number of churches up and down the land will follow the example of Holy Trinity, Stratford, and consider planting 12 new yew trees to represent either the 12 tribes of Israel or, indeed, the 12 apostles.