The mysterious death of the 1,000-year-old yew trees of the North Downs in Surrey

After a millennium of untroubled existence, a number of ancient yew trees in Surrey have died in mysterious circumstances. James Fisher reports.

Research is under way to discover why some of the ancient yew trees within Newlands Corner on the North Downs in Surrey have died. Toby Hindson, of the UK’s Ancient Yew Group, will carry out research that will explore the deceased trees’ rings to discover when the mysterious agent began to affect them.

Estimated to be at least 1,000 years old, the Newlands Corner yews are one of the oldest large populations of wild yews growing anywhere in the world.

The trees are extremely rare in the wild, with the majority found in churchyards. The Ancient Yew Group worries that whatever is affecting the Newlands Corner trees may spread and that the idyllic pastoral scene of the traditional church with a yew beside it may be lost,’ says Mr Hindson.

‘Discovery of a “signature of decline” in ancient yew-tree rings would be a great coup — an example of the meeting of high science and conservation.’

‘It is this kind of knowledge that can reliably inform better practice and solutions to conservation problems.

‘A side effect of this work may help in understanding the resilience of the old yews to climate change and water extraction. The site chronology that will be produced is a very powerful and versatile scientific instrument.’

‘We are naturally anxious to discover what has been affecting the ancient yews at Newlands Corner, so that everything can be done to conserve and protect other ancient yews,’ adds David Shreeve, director of the The Conservation Foundation.

Find out more about ancient yews of Britain at