The yew tree in the Fortingall Churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland, was there long before there was a church, or even the practice of Christianity. The yew is believed to be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 years old, which would make it the oldest tree in the United Kingdom and, possibly, all of Europe (yews, however, are notoriously hard to date). But the ancient yew tree may not be around much longer. Tree advocates are sounding the alarm that visitors are stressing the tree by nipping off bits and tying tokens around its branches, which may hasten its demise.
Despite the recent addition of a cage around the tree to keep people away, visitors have not taken the hint; instead, Arthur Vundla and Lizzie Roberts at The Scotsman report, visitors are now climbing over the encasing to access the tree. Neil Hooper, the Fortingall Tree warden, confirms that tourists regularly take needles, twigs and, sometimes, branches from the tree. But he’s most concerned about people climbing over the cage to tie beads and ribbons to the branches.
“They are attacking this poor tree, it’s stressed, and whether that’s the reason this poor tree is not doing very well at the moment, we don’t know,” says Catherine Lloyd, coordinator of the Tayside Biodiversity Community Partnership, a local environmental group.
While some have suggested the tree only has only 50 years left to live, Lloyd tells Sabrina Imbler at Atlas Obscura that researchers simply don’t know how stressed the yew is and how that will affect the tree's longevity. What they do know is that it doesn't appear to be faring very well.
The yew actually doesn’t look like one single tree. In 1769, it did have a single trunk measuring 52 feet in circumference. But since then, it has split into several smaller trees and now resembles a grove of yew trees. That is normal behavior for ancient yews; often the heartwood rots out, giving the elderly tree a lighter load to bear.
This current spate of tree abuse is not unusual, Lloyd tells Imbler. “If you research the stories, there are the usual highlights of bonfires being lit during high days and holidays, a horse being ridden through the middle of the tree, etc.,” she says. “People have been unkind to the tree for centuries.”
Funeral processions used to pass through the gap between the tree’s trunks, and in 1833 a journal noted that someone had carted off large arms of the tree and even some chunks of trunk, likely to make novelty items. A stone wall constructed in the Victorian era sought to stop some of the shenanigans, and it appears it did.
But Imbler reports that the more modern affronts to the tree, though less drastic then previous insults, may be having a bigger impact. While the tree lived for millennia as a male, in 2015 a branch began producing red berries, indicating that it changed sex. It’s believed the sex change is a sign of stress. It’s also possible that the Victorian wall is creating a microclimate in the grove that is also stressing out the Fortingall Yew, something that needs to be investigated.
Lloyd, Hooper and others are devising strategies to strengthen the old tree and keep people from interfering with it. They are also hedging their bets, literally; they hope to keep the genes of the tree going, even if the Fortingall Yew succumbs. The Scotsman reports that the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh already has a yew hedge propagated from cuttings from the Fortingall Yew. The Garden is now growing 30 to 50 new saplings from that hedge, and hopes to distribute them to 20 churchyards by 2020 as part of a 10-year Church Yew Tree project.
In the meantime, Lloyd hopes that people will get the message and stop harassing the tree. Another strategy may be to remind people what yew trees are all about. The trees are common in churchyards because they are a traditional symbol of death. They were also considered sacred to Hecate, the druidic goddess of witchcraft and death, which is why it’s believed ancient yews may have been the site of worship ceremonies. Now that’s a tree you don’t want to mess with.