Country: King among lion hearts

A distinguished sentinel of the churchyard, the yew boasts an awe-inspiring and ancient pedigree. For one thing it counts its birthdays in millennia.
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IF TREES could talk the yew would have a great deal to tell us. It is the longest living species in Europe and Asia. The Fortingal yew in Perthshire is reputed to be Britain's oldest tree - and probably dates back approximately 4,000 or 5,000 years, although estimates vary. When you are that old it is hard to be precise about how long you have been around.

When this grand sentinel was pushing its young shoots above the ground the first settlements of Troy were being laid down, and the Egyptians were going through their pyramid period. Salisbury Plain still had not been adorned with Stonehenge and would not be for another 1000 years. Only in the tree's middle age did the Romans arrive in Britain. And although now many centuries old it is about to witness the birth of a new generation of great, great grandchildren.

Almost 5,000 yewlets will be planted in parishes across the country for the millennium as part of a programme run by The Conservation Foundation to create yews for the future and raise awareness for ancient and existing specimens.

The yewlets have been propagated from their ancient relatives and will begin their journeys to their new homes next autumn (1999) to be planted in time for the beginning of the next millennium. Yew services are planned for most of Britain's major cathedrals and numerous churches.

These yewlets should be standing long after our death. In fact if they live up to their species' reputation for longevity they will be marvelled at in the 71st century, if the human race is around that long.

As well as the many religious sites and shrines that will be part of the planting programme, requests have been received from hospitals and hospices, prisons, schools and universities. The Director of the Conservation Foundation, David Shreeve, said this was the largest propagation programme from ancient yews ever and he hoped it would ensure the future stock of native yews throughout the UK. All funds raised will be used to carry on the organisation's research programme into yews.

There are some saplings left to claim from the Foundation, but parishes will have to be fairly quick off the mark because the deadline for applications is the end of 31 January, 1999.

When asked to pick his favourite specimen for National Tree Week (25 November to 6 December), Professor David Bellamy, the respected botanist and president of the Conservation Foundation, listed the Fortingal yew as his first choice. The combination of age and beauty is compelling.

The Conservation Foundation, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. 0171- 591 3111