Trimming the Painswick Yew Trees

Once a year, usually in September, Tree Maintenance undertakes the trimming of the famous Painswick Yew Trees. Built in the 15th and 16th centuries, Painswick boasts, in its centre, the magnificent St. Mary’s Church, that is host to this beautiful collection of Yew trees that were planted in the late 1700s. Rumour has it that there are 99 trees and every time the 100th is planted it dies. Almost every year Tree Maintenance is asked about this rumour by passing tourists, but when invited, the tourists rarely accept the invitation to count the trees for themselves!

Tree Maintenance arrives on site

Tree Maintenance arrives on site

Tree Maintenance has been trimming the Painswick Yew trees for over 20 years. In the company’s early days of this mammoth exercise, 3 men would spend several days trimming the trees and by the end of it be thoroughly exhausted and glad that it was at last completed. Although the job would be arduous it always had its rewards. There is a real sense of pride in completing such a task and then looking at the finished job and seeing tourists from all over the world taking photos of the trimmed trees. In the last few years trimming the famous 99 trees has taken place in just one day with a very big team! This is quite some achievement and is attained by good team-work and a high degree of skill.

Work in progress

Work in progress

When referring to ‘trimming’ of Yew trees, this means the removal of the end growth from all the branches. This is the young shoots of the last growing season if done annually, or the last two year’s growth, if done bi-annually. This young growth can be removed with a hedge trimmer and if done over a period of years a compact smooth shape can be achieved leaving a sculptured tree. This achieves an ‘ornamental effect’ and also restricts and slows the growth of the tree. Removing more growth from a Yew tree than would be done by trimming is referred to as ‘reducing’, ‘cutting back’ or ‘pruning’ and entails cutting of the woody stems. For this a hedge trimmer is not suitable and a hand saw or a chainsaw is required instead. Normally the Painswick Yew trees are only ‘trimmed’, but from time to time further ‘cutting back’ has taken place on selected trees to regain space around the paths that has been lost over a number of years as the trees gradually expand in size, regardless of the regular trimming regime.

John and Bob trimming the Painswick Yew trees

John and Bob trimming the Painswick Yew trees

September is a good time to trim Yew trees because it’s late enough in the year to ensure that no noticeable re-growth happens in the same year and therefore the trees remain looking tidy until early summer the following year. Also, it’s late enough in the year to avoid the worst of the summer heat that if hot enough can sometimes cause scorching of the cut ends and makes the trees look bleached. Trimming in periods of heavy winter frost needs to be avoided as this burns the cut ends and looks unsightly and can stress the trees. However, hard cutting back of Yews should take place in very early spring (but before bird nesting starts) as this give the maximum opportunity for the tree to put on young response growth and gives it a head start to recover.

So back to the Painswick Yew Trees, how does Tree Maintenance go about undertaking this task and what preparation takes place to make it happen?

A couple of days before the planned trimming takes place, all equipment required is thoroughly checked and prepared. Trimmers have to be cleaned, checked for wear and tear, worn parts replaced, gearboxes greased and cutter bars sharpened. Ladders and steps are inspected for defects, and blowers, rakes and tarpaulins are also checked to ensure they are fit for use. Due to the nature of the job and the fact that a large team of people require all the kit to be in top condition, everything has to be ready. A failure of machinery could mean the job not being completed in the tight schedule set and precious labour being wasted. Unlike someone working in their own garden on a weekend, a commercial team has to do things right first time and make them happen on time.

Rob (AKA Birt) trimms the top of a Yew

Rob (AKA Birt) trimms the top of a Yew

On the day of the trimming, one experienced foreman is in overall charge of the whole job. He is responsible for the organisation on site and for the ‘risk assessment’ that is completed before any work can take place. The risk assessment highlights the safety precautions that need to be put in place before work can commence. The main issue of safety when trimming the Painswick Yew Trees is controlling the public access to the churchyard. Great care is taken to ensure that no one can accidentally wander into a live work zone and be at risk of injury. The areas are controlled by marking-out with signs and barrier tape and by the use of vigilant ground staff. Another issue that is strictly managed is ‘Working at Height’. With many staff working from ladders and steps the ‘Working at Height Regulations’ have to be adhered to. These regulations stipulate a hierarchy of control measures that have to be in place before any employee can work at height. Adhering to the regulations and following the risk assessment is part of Health and Safety Law under the Health and Safety at Work Act and it’s the responsibility of all staff to comply with this and the responsibility of the site foreman to make sure it happens.

In order to be efficient with a large team of men, the team is divided into 3 smaller teams, each led by a team leader and in each of these smaller teams each team member has a specific role. The main roles are laying out tarpaulins ahead of the trimmers to catch the falling debris and then shifting it to a central stock pile, trimming the lower canopies from the ground or step ladders and trimming the high tops from extendable ladders. Each team also has to ensure the public does not enter the marked-out work zones. The teams will start in different places at the far ends of the churchyard and progressively work towards each other, ending as one team nears the centre. This way all the staff and equipment end up in more or less the same place and the last of the clearing up and the packing away of tools is one final team effort with the Painswick Yew Trees looking splendid for another year.

Many people ask what happens to the clippings from the trees. A company called Friendship Estates collects these and the clippings are used as the raw material for the production of anti-cancer drugs, primarily to treat breast and ovarian cancers. Quoting from their web site, ‘The yew clippings should be one year’s growth from regularly clipped hedges or trees. This is because the required chemical is concentrated in the green, actively-growing parts of the plant. It is also important that the yew clippings are kept fresh – the active ingredient starts to break down as the clippings deteriorate. We are able to collect all types of Taxus baccata, including Irish and golden forms.’

With the exception of the office staff, all the Tree Maintenance Ltd workforce turn up on site, from the trainees to the surveyors, from the skilled climbers to the company Director, all are there for the grand occasion. It’s a tough job but one well worth doing, and above all, one that makes the team proud. So there you have it, an insight into the trimming of the famous Painswick Yew Trees!

Tree Maintenance carries out Yew trimming for many other customers in many other locations. They can often be found in Stroud and other surrounding places such as, Dursley, Tetbury, Malmesbury and Cirencester to name just a few.

This post was provided by tree maintenance specialists. If you need advice on Tree Maintenance and/or a quotation, then give us a call on 01285 760466

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Jon Usher

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