Ladder Safety Essential When Cutting Britain’s Tallest Yew Hedge

Ladder Safety Essential When Cutting Britain’s Tallest Yew Hedge

03rd June 2014

Britain’s tallest yew hedge (40ft and still growing) was given its annual trim recently – it’s 300 years old and belongs to Lord Allen Aspley.  The hedge on the Bathurst Estate in the Cotswolds took two workers two whole days to trim – it’s 33ft wide and 150 yards long and was planted back in the 16th Century.  A 70ft high cherry picker was used to do the job and cut back six inches of new growth, producing nearly a tonne of clippings.  These clippings won’t be composted, however, they are far too valuable for that.  

The yew hedge cuttings are sold to pharmaceutical companies who use yew extract as a key ingredient in a chemotherapy drug that is used mainly to treat ovarian, breast and lung cancers.  Compounds called taxanes are extracted from the clippings and used to make the drug known as docetaxel which can stop cancer cells from growing and dividing.

However, the leaves and seeds of the yew (taxus baccata) are lethally poisonous if ingested.  

Indeed this poisonous nature is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the Third Witch:

“Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark, Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver'd in the moon's eclipse, Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe, Ditch-deliver'd by a drab, Make the gruel thick and slab:  
Add thereto a tiger's chaudron, For the ingredients of our cauldron.”

Yew trees are often found in churchyards in many parts of Europe and were deemed sacred throughout history and the trees have attracted legends that are part of the folklore of many cultures.  The wood from the trees was used to make longbows in England and Wales and this early weapon of war is what led to many victories for England through the centuries.  Because the draw weight of a typical English bow was so high considerable practice was required to produce swift and effective shooting during combat.  King Edward 3rd passed a declaration that required every man between the ages of 15 and 60 years to practice their longbow shooting on Sundays and holidays.  This led to the English bowmen enjoying spectacular victories over the French at Crecy, Agincourt and Poitiers and the English longbow is thought to be the most important English military invention of the 1300s, changing the political face of Europe forever.

The annual trim of Lord Aspley’s giant yew hedge set him back a hefty £5,000 – how much of this is offset by the sale of clippings to pharmaceutical companies is unknown.  The hedge trimming is organised and carried out by Tim Day who has been cutting this hedge for the past 40 years.  The hedge used to be cut by teams of estate workers wielding garden shears and using rickety straight wooden ladders leaned together in an A shape – a nightmare scenario from a health and safety point of view.  The more recent use of cherry pickers to access the highest points of the hedge has ensured that this is a much safer job nowadays than it was in times gone by.