The clippings of a 300-year-old, 150ft yew hedge can save the lives of cancer patients

The green giant is on the Bathurst Estate in Cirencester and its clippings are sold to pharmaceutical firms as a key ingredient of docetaxel, a chemotherapy drug

It's 33ft wide, 150ft long and 40ft tall, but the massive yew hedge at the Bathurst Estate in the Cotswolds is more than just a 300-year-old horticultural wonder, it's a life-saving tree.

This week, as they do every August, two gardeners – Tim Day, who has trimmed the hedge every year since 1974, and John Rutterford – are working flat-out to lop up to one ton of clippings off the green giant. It should take them 10 days to complete the job at the Cirencester estate, at the cost of £5,000 to the 9th Earl Bathurst.

Once the job is done, the chainsaws are packed away and the cherry-picker gone, the vast bags of clippings won't end up in landfill or a giant compost bin, rather they will be trucked off to the Continent to become the life-saving cancer drug docetaxel.

"I'm afraid to say I don't know a great deal about what happens to it," Lord Bathurst tells me. "I know that a very good friend of mine was once treated with it, but Friendship Estates, which takes it away, is rather secretive as to where it ends up. It's wonderful to know that it's going to a worthy cause, though."

It's certainty not a profit-making enterprise, adds Lord Bathurst, whose forebears have cared for the hedge at their family seat of Cirencester Park for more than nine generations. "They pay us 35 pence a kilogram to take it away, which means, with the cost of trimming the thing, we actually make a substantial loss. Not that I'm complaining, as we don't have to touch the thing for the rest of the year, other than knocking off some snow in winter. Otherwise, it just looks after itself."

The volume of off-cuts from Lord Bathurst's hedge might seem vast, but it is only a tiny fraction of the several hundred tons collected between July and September each year by a small number of specialist firms.

These clippings are then sold to pharmaceutical firms, which use an active extract in the yew as a key ingredient of docetaxel, a chemotherapy drug used to treat various forms of cancer.

"We collect more than 100 tons of clipping each year," explains Matthew Cooke, from Friendships Estates Limited, who is setting off to the Bathurst Estate from his Yorkshire base today. "We travel all over the country and are always looking for new yew hedge. A healthy one should provide about one to four kilos of clippings per metre per year."

Cooke is a little more vague about where the precious green stuff goes after he collects it, though: "We have competitors out there in the south of England and Belgium, so I wouldn't want to admit exactly where it goes, except to say that we ship to a company in Europe that extracts the active ingredients and then moves it on to the drug producers."

It's not clear which producer Lord Bathurst's clippings end up with, but a spokesman for Sonofi, one of the biggest docetaxel producers, confirmed that while the drug was traditionally sourced from the bark of Pacific yew trees, it is now produced from the clippings of Europe's hedgerows.

According to John Newlands, a cancer information nurse at Macmillan Cancer Support, the drug is used in chemotherapy to treat breast, lung, head and neck, prostate and stomach cancers. "Typically a patient would take one treatment every week for six to eight weeks," he explains. "For breast cancer, for example, it would often be used after surgery as a preventative measure to combat cancer cells that may remain elsewhere in the body."

Docetaxel is not the only cancer drug making use of the yew tree. A drug called paclitaxel uses bark from the Pacific and Himalayan varieties. Paclitaxel is also from the taxane family, which works by interfering with cell division and by the blocking of cell growth.

However, rising cancer rates – along with a demand for firewood – have meant that the yew tree has been placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature endangered list in Afghanistan, India and Nepal.

There is no such worry in Cirencester, though, says Lord Bathurst. "There's a yew tree in Wales that they think was 3,000 years old when Christ was born and that's still there, so I think we're quite safe here."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
i100
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    2nd Line server support - Microsoft certified

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large organisa...

    English Teacher

    £120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: English Teacher Required for Oct...

    Mandarin Teacher

    £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you qualified Mandarin Teache...

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    Day In a Page

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?