The Yew – An Original Christmas Tree

Sam Newton – Woodland Creation Assistant

Yew links to Christmas and Christianity and back beyond into the depths of time. Like other evergreens, branches of yew were brought into people’s houses at Christmas as decoration and also as bitter reminder of the Christian Passion.

Yew trees in St Mary’s churchyard, Goathland. This churchyard contains some of the largest yew trees in the North York Moors. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

Yew trees (Taxus baccata) are now strongly associated with churchyards. They are a connection to the old Norse and Celt beliefs that yew trees protected against bewitchment and death. Pagans celebrated the yew at the mid winter festival of Saturnalia, which later melted into Christmas. Many old churchyard yews may have been planted by church-builders, brought out of the woods and into a civilised setting. Or later on top of graves to ward off evil around the dead and provide branches to be carried on Palm Sunday and at funerals. It became a tradition without a remembrance of its origins.

There are also a number of churchyard yews predating their churches, and even Christianity. Some trees alive today in Britain are truly ancient. The Fortingall Yew in Scotland is possibly between 2,000 and 3,000 years old – a myth tells of Pontius Pilate as the son of a Roman envoy, being born beneath and playing as a child within its branches. While the Ankerwycke Yew witnessed the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, as an already 1,000-year-old tree overlooking Runnymede meadows in Surrey.

The first few lines of ‘Lines on the Ancient Yew in Darley Church Yard’ (in Derbyshire)
By Samuel Barker

Thou art an interesting tree,
The fact’s beyond dispute,
Thy monster trunk and giant bows
And intersecting roots,
Rearing in solemn grandeur,
Thy patriarchal head,
Reigning in midnight dimness,
O’er the regions of the dead.

Male yew tree in St Nicholas’ Churchyard, Bransdale, showing the beginnings of next year’s flowers. Yew trees are dioicous, with individual plants either male or female. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

The story of the yew tree is one of life, death, and resurrection. It was said by the noted forester and dendrologist Alan Mitchell, that “there is no theoretical end to this tree, no need for it to die”.

Yews reach such old age through an amazing ability to renew themselves and return from apparent decay. New shoots from the base can coalesce with the main trunk, while lowered branches can put down roots, and fallen trees remain alive as long as the smallest amount of root remains attached. Ancient trees can be split into several parts, and no longer look like one tree, but can go on surviving for many hundreds of years more.

St Nicholas’ Church, Bransdale, and its churchyard yew tree. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.

Death lingers in these long-lived trees, with all parts of the plant containing highly poisonous taxine alkaloids. Yet at the same time these same highly poisonous chemicals provide modern day science with anti-cancer compounds. The yew tree can regenerate us, as well as itself.

Yorkshire has a strong but somewhat forgotten link to yew trees. The ancient Celtic name for the City of York is Eborakon, which can be translated to ‘the place where the yew trees grow’, or came from the name Eburos, meaning ‘yew man’. In the North York Moors, yew trees are common in churchyards, and can occasionally be encountered in the surrounding areas.

For more information about this natural and cultural marvel have a look at the Ancient Yew Group’s website

Biological recording for the soul: recording nature – Part Two

“Biological recording on a national scale enables effective nature conservation”

Sam Newton

Sam Newton – Land of Iron Natural Heritage Officer

Like I said last time you still don’t necessarily need to go far to observe nature.

If you can identify wildlife as you come across it then you can add to a growing wealth of knowledge. The basic ingredients you need are:

  • what you saw
  • where you saw it
  • when you saw it
  • who saw it

Then all you need to do is submit these details. There are many different recording societies and schemes, but if you are new to biological recording, the easiest way to start is uploading records to iRecord (also available as an App). Uploading photos with your records will help the experts who will check your records. iNaturalist is an alternative for uploading pictures of species you have not been able to identify, and then other users of the site can try and identify them with you.

Please note – we do know what most of these are – but we left them un-named so you can have a go yourself.

Being able to observe and identify a plant or animal species, and in doing so understand a bit more about nature, can be incredibly satisfying. But you don’t need to act in isolation – other people are already doing this and can help and encourage with their expertise, experience and enthusiasm. There are a number of really great local and regional naturalist groups that are interested in the species you are perhaps most likely to encounter in your garden and nearby outdoor spaces. Things to remember are that not all species can be identified from photos, and if you use one of these sites, please read any introductory information or pinned posts to find out precisely how they operate.

For general wildlife in and around the North York Moors
Check out the Ryedale Natural History Society, Whitby Naturalists, Scarborough Field Naturalists, and Cleveland Naturalists Field Club for links and information. You could also follow the Whitby Naturalists and Scarborough Field Naturalists on Facebook. Also have a look at the Yorkshire Naturalists Union, who as an organisation study and record Yorkshire’s Flora and Fauna – look for their latest news, wildlife sightings, their Twitter, their Flickr Early purple orchid on a road verge near Sam's house. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.and they also have a list of the wider Yorkshire groups and societies.

For general plants in and around the North York Moors
Look out for a copy of one of the late Nan Syke’s books, such as A Picture Guide to the Wild Flowers of North East Yorkshire (now sadly out of print*) or Wild Flowers on the Edge: The Story of North Yorkshire’s Road Verges. Maybe join North East Yorkshire Botany on Facebook.

For local invertebrates
Have a look at Butterfly Conservation Yorkshire, and their publication The Butterflies of Oak Beauty Moth from Sam's home moth trap. Copyright Sam Newton, NYMNPA.Yorkshire, which brings together a huge amount of identification and ecological detail. Also consider joining the Butterflies and Moths, North and East Yorkshire Facebook page. There are around 2,500 British species of moth. I’m keen on moth trapping which allows more time for identification – the moths are released without being harmed. You can use a purpose made moth trap, or check out the BBC’s Springwatch Blog on Moth Trapping for Beginners. To find out more about dragonflies have a look at the species information and other resources on the Yorkshire Dragonfly Group website, and maybe join Yorkshire Dragonfly Group on Facebook.

For nearby birds, fungi, bats, other mammals and more
There are a multitude of other local websites and groups to follow, such as Scarborough Birders, the North East Fungi Study Group, North Yorkshire Bat Group, the Yorkshire Mammal Group – to name just four! To keep up with local biodiversity and nature news, follow Tim Burkinshaw’s Connecting For Nature Blog, and have a look at Yorkshire Coast Nature’s Blogs and News.

These are resources from around the North York Moors but if you’re from further away there will be similar local and regional naturalist groups for you too. Recording nature is something to do together for a shared purpose without actually needing to be side by side.

When you’re out and about, having a look around, always remember to stay safe during the present Covid-19 pandemic. To keep up to date with the latest National Park response to Covid-19 – see here.

*Good news – this book has recently been republished and is available through the North Yorkshire Moors Association.

Looking after Levisham Estate

Alex Cripps – Conservation Graduate Trainee

I recently carried out the Levisham Botanical Survey for this year with the help of Dawn Rothwell, our current Volunteer Service Assistant and a keen Volunteer herself, and Sam Lightfoot, LEADER Volunteer.

Levisham Estate is one of the very few areas in the North York Moors actually owned by the North York Moors National Park Authority. It’s just north of Pickering and the land holding is made up of c. 1,360 ha of moorland, woodland, and upland farmland..The overall aim of management on the Estate is to maximise the contribution of the Estate to National Park Purposes

The purpose of the annual Levisham Botanical survey is to ascertain if bracken/scrub encroachment and over grazing are still having a detrimental effect on sites which had been identified as being species rich and of high botanical interest in the past. The Survey has been carried out most years since 2006 and the results help inform us on further management, or suggest changes to the current management, in order to improve the botanical value of the sites.

Three specific exclosures (4m x 4m) have been set up in Levisham Bottoms, the Hole of Horcum and on Levisham Moor. The exclosures are monitored each year to compare species diversity within the exclosures where grazing is eliminated compared to the surrounding area where grazing continues.

Over the years since 2006 the areas outside the exclosures have greatly improved due to the change in grazing pressure on Levisham Estate. A balance is needed between over grazing/management and not enough management allowing scrub to build up at the expense of other habitats.

Ragged RobinRagged Robin 2Ragged Robin 3This year six additional sites were surveyed that hadn’t been monitored since 2007. These sites had previously had an indication of over grazing and bracken encroachment/shading. Some of these additional sites are still species rich but others are suffering from overgrazing, resulting in species being miniature in appearance. Some sites are under severe threat from bracken and gorse encroachment and have reduced in size since they were previously surveyed.

All in all however sites have greatly improved as a result of active management – bracken and scrub clearance – that has been carried out in the last few years. These sites, such as a species rich flush in the Hole of Horcum and a roadside flush near Levisham Station, are really special. A flush is an area of wet ground fed from ground water. Plant species such as Black bog-rush, Round-leaved sundew, Common butterwort, Bog pimpernel and Ragged robin have been found in good numbers. These areas are also attracting other species such as the Small pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, Golden-ringed dragonfly and the Common lizard.