There is a dark green tree standing on the north side of the medieval stone church in Defynnog. The tree is broad and tall and has been split into two rather separate trees over the centuries.
Under its low boughs, lots of trunks resemble molten lava. Some limbs plait as sinews; others are as straight as a ramrod. Many patches of wood are as smooth as a liquid; the rest are spiny like a sea urchin. There are stag’s antlers of dead branches but also spiky fresh foliage that turns ancient stumps into huge shaving brushes.
All types of the tree appear to exist in this fantastical, sculptural yew in a small Welsh village in the Brecon Beacons. But the most remarkable feature of this ancient tree is that it is less protected than the much younger church around it.
Recently, there’s a petition calling for legal protection for ancient yews has already gained 230,000 signatories. The tree’s fate has been taken into consideration by the ancients of the House of Lords and barristers are planning for new legislation.
Britain is regarded as home to far more ancient yews than any other country in Europe. The Ancient Yew Group has listed 978 ancient or veteran yews (over 500 years old) in England and 407 in Wales; France has 77; Germany and Spain just four each.
But some tree champions say that petitions to keep them safe will never be regarded as a law because powerful landowners – and one landowner in particular – are opposed to extra protections.
For Janis Fry, an artist and yew expert who created the petition, the yew at Defynnog possess “every possibility of creation”. Its red berries (the flesh – but not the poisonous seeds inside – is the only edible part of a notoriously toxic tree) indicate that it is female but, unusually, this tree also has one male branch.
The yew is preserved by its local vicar and parish but some travelers who come to venerate it have stripped yellow-colored needles from its unusual, small “golden boughs” because they suppose that these strangely-colored needles possess healing powers.