THE wanton destruction of the Sycamore Gap Tree has underscored two sides to humanity’s relationship with totems of the natural world. Some among us, for reasons we may never fully comprehend, seek to annihilate these embodiments of place precisely because of their collectively agreed-upon specialness.

Far more of us, however, deeply desire to protect them, and undergo a profoundly solastalgia-driven process of mourning when they are taken from us. In the wake of such a loss, we cannot help but turn our concern to those left standing – indeed, we must.

Across the UK, which has more ancient and veteran trees than anywhere else in Europe, they are constantly under threat of both gradual and literal overnight destruction. Every year fewer of these giants stand among us and we are all diminished for it.

The oldest and most revered of these age-defying wonders is the Fortingall Yew in Perthshire. At around 2500 years old, it predates the churchyard it stands in by a millennium. In monumental terms, the day when the Fortingall Yew first felt the sun was just as close, if not closer, in time to the raising of the standing stones at Brodgar and Callanish than to today.

Yews are considered “ancient” when they are older than 800 years and have a girth greater than 23ft. The Fortingall Yew’s greatest recorded size, in the late 18th century, had more than double that girth and, in relative terms, an 800-year-old yew would be a 30-year-old compared to Fortingall’s 90-year-old.

The National: The Sycamore Gap before its untimely fellingThe Sycamore Gap before its untimely felling

Like lobsters, yew trees are theoretically capable of immortality. They do not wither or mend themselves any less effectively regardless of their age. It is only through some external event, such as severe climactic changes or deliberate felling, that they die.

The branch of a 2500-year-old yew is just as potent and vigorous as that of a 50-year-old one. One part of a yew can be terribly damaged or outright destroyed without, to a limit, hindering the rest of the tree.

Yew branches which droop and touch the ground under their own great weight can, in a process called layering, form roots and begin to ascend skyward once again.

Alexander Stewart, a shoemaker who lived in Glen Lyon in Perth and Kinross, witnessed this invigoration in the 1920s, writing in A Highland Parish: “The limbs leaned towards mother earth and they seem to have got fresh nourishment from it.”

The yew as its stands today, divided into two sections with a large gap in the middle, is the result of layering and entirely lacks the core which once united them. In fact, the heartwood at the centre of the “original” Fortingall Yew decayed many years ago. Such a loss would spell the beginning of the end for many trees, yet for yews it is merely the end of one beginning. The Fortingall Yew lost one heart and grew two more, something which, on the face of it, sounds like an idea straight from science fiction.

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If I may modify the subject of the popular thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus, the yew is the Tree of Theseus, perpetually finding new life with which to defy natural entropy and human intervention. No wonder that yews are revered as symbols of the eternal cycle of life and death and have been since long before written records began.

Another remarkable form of renewal was observed at Fortingall in 2015, when arils or berries were seen growing high up in the yew’s crown. This should have been impossible, as the Fortingall Yew has been a male – to our knowledge – since it first breached the soil, and male yews do not grow arils.

Several varieties of conifers are able to spontaneously change the sex of individual portions of their growth, usually in the crown, and this is exactly what has occurred. After 2500 years, the Fortingall Yew is still finding new ways to surprise us.

As it stands now, however, the Fortingall Yew is an increasingly flayed body surviving in spite of our fascination with it. Two centuries ago, the geologist John MacCulloch noted with concern that the great tree was “going fast to decay”, in large part due to visitors who broke twigs off from it to display at home.

The National: The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire The Fortingall Yew in Perthshire

Tourists were not the only contributors to this decay. Local anecdotes tell how parts of the trunk were used to fashion arrows and tools and how Beltane fires were lit at the base of its trunk, causing it to split. In 1769, it was even possible to drive a coach and horses through the middle.

Though it may have survived Victorian souvenir hunters and generations of toolmakers, the future of the Fortingall Yew is now very much in doubt. Some predictions say that, at the current rate of damage, it will almost certainly not live to see the turn of the next century.

On two occasions, I have had to drive off large coach groups brazenly breaking off the yew’s extremities under the careless watch, and even encouragement, of their guides. One group of New Age spiritualists did not seem to comprehend the hypocrisy of saying a prayer to the great tree before proceeding to snap pieces off it until they were thoroughly shamed. Even then, I suspect many of them returned to pilfer more once I moved on. The Fortingall Yew is literally being loved to death.

It and great trees like it are thus part of the familiar tension between human reverence of a place and the tendency of that very reverence to sow the seeds of destruction. Sometimes, efforts to resolve this tension worsen or do little to address the problem.

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In the mid-19th century, a protective wall was built around the yew. Like a tiger in an inadequate zoo enclosure, however, this hemming in caused the yew to visibly diminish. Openings and iron grates were added and remain to this day to allow it to better breathe but it is through these very openings that modern vandals seize their ill-gotten trophies.

One major obstacle to ensuring the survival of ancient trees in the UK is that they have no automatic right of protection under the law. Bafflingly, this means that while it is illegal to damage the wall which surrounds the Fortingall Yew, it is not illegal to damage the yew itself.

If the felling of the Sycamore Gap tree – which was not an ancient tree, but a beloved and monumental one nonetheless – compels one immediate action, surely it should be the granting of legal protections to other trees like it. Until this happens, none are shielded from the threat of an axe or chainsaw in the night.