COUNTRY & GARDEN: Nature Notes

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The Independent Culture
YEWS ARE among the longest-lived of all trees. Precise dating is often impossible, because in time the insides of the trunks rot, and no countable rings are left. But many yews in Britain are thought to be more than 1,000 years old.

On favourable ground their branches can spread out to an enormous width, often 100ft or more. Slow growth and close grain give their wood exceptional toughness and flexibility: hence its use for making longbows. Sound trunks of good dimensions are valuable as timber for highly patterned veneer.

Yews are everywhere associated with churchyards, and may have been planted around graves because they were thought to draw noxious vapours out of the ground. The same theory would account for their frequent proximity to the free-standing privies that were built at the bottom of gardens.

The foliage is widely considered poisonous, and there are many reports of herbivores being killed by it. But deer often eat yew in hard weather, and appear not to be harmed by moderate quantities.

The sticky red berries - ripe at this time of year - are certainly not poisonous, and are relished by birds and squirrels. A further bonus to wildlife is that the trees provide warm shelter. Even in hard frost, the ground under the canopy generally remains soft.