Churchyards are a true haven for veteran trees, particularly the oldest trees in Britain, the ancient yews. Individual yew trees may predate Christianity, with some trees believed to be several thousand years old. These trees may well indicate an earlier, pagan site of spiritual importance and can be the oldest feature in an area, definitely the oldest living thing.
There are about 800 ancient and veteran yews in the churchyards of England and Wales, three quarters of the British population. Internationally, Britain is a stronghold of veteran yew trees and so these churchyard yews are really important on a global level. Look on the Ancient Yew Group website for information on how to find these timeless giants – they are well worth a visit.
Yew trees, like other veteran trees, hollow out naturally as they grow older, this happens at about 600 years with yews, earlier with other species. This cylindrical shape is particularly strong and hollow trees can withstand storms that bring down younger specimens. Yews have no known upper age limit as they can endlessly regenerate by sending down aerial roots which root in the soil and fuse with the main trunk. In addition, boughs tend to bend to the ground where they will take root and grow.
Burial grounds often contain other species of veteran tree. Whilst these won’t be as old as the oldest yews, they may well be many hundreds of years old and magnificent specimens in their own right. They are likely to have a whole range of other plants, lichens, birds and other animals living in and on them. Look for dead wood within the crown of the tree plus holes, flaking bark and crevices containing a range of fungi, beetles, bats and birds.