top of page
  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Kingley Vale: Yews, Epiphytes, Fungi and The Devil's Humps. 11.02.23

Kingley Vale is a National Nature Reserve famous for its historic Yews. I visit Kingley Vale regularly. Its yews, other trees, and short grass chalk downland offer beautiful vistas. The Yews are architectural and their forms are fascinating, and the downland provides a habitat for an abundance of chalkland butterflies in the summer. On this visit I focussed particularly on epiphytes on its yews, as yews have a reputation as poor hosts for epiphytes and I wanted explore the relationship between the yew in Kingley Vale and mosses, liverworts and lichens.

I reached Kingley Vale by train and bus. I took the train to Chichester and then the bus to Funtington 54 Bus Route & Timetable: Chichester - Petersfield | Stagecoach ( are only five buses to an carefully! From Funtington it is a two mile walk to the entry to Kingley Vale. Kingley Vale has steep hills so may not be a great place to visit if you have restricted mobility; although the yew grove is mostly on the flat, although the ground is very uneven due to the yew's roots.

Walking route (in red):

Part of the route is on country lanes with no pavements, so care need to be taken when walking this route

Kingley Vale was designated one of the country’s first National Nature Reserves in 1952. It is owned by Natural England and the West Dean Estate, who manage the Reserve protecting its special habitats, wildlife and heritage. Kingley Vale is known for its twisted and ancient yew trees and includes a grove of veteran trees which are among the oldest living things in Britain. Several are at least 500 years old, with the oldest measuring more than five metres in girth. It also has superb chalk grassland with an abundance of chalk-loving plants like birds foot trefoil, kidney vetch and fairy flax. You can also find 11 different species of orchid in the Reserve including bee, common spotted, frog and fly orchids. Look out for red kites and buzzards soaring above you. Breeding birds at Kingley Vale include the nightingale, grasshopper warbler, blackcap, marshtit and green woodpecker. Of the 58 species of butterfly that breed in England, 39 have been recorded at Kingley Vale, including chalkhill blue, holly blue and brimstone. The Reserve also contains one of the most important concentrations of well-preserved archaeological sites in southern England, including 14 Scheduled Monuments of which the Devil's Humps and Goosehill are the most prominent. Kingley-Vale-Hidden-Trail-Final-web-version.pdf (

The reserve covers an area of 160 hectares, including one of the finest yew forests in western Europe. Some of the trees here are as much as 1,000 years old, their trunks contorted by age and countless storms into incredibly bizarre shapes. Giant side branches swirl into the soil like snakes, where they made secondary roots. From these young trees have arisen. The ground under these trees is so dark that no vegetation of any kind, not even grass, grow.

It’s hard to say how old the yews are at Kingley Vale. Yews typically have lifespans between 400 and 600 years, but some specimens can live longer. The age of yews is notoriously difficult to determine because as the trees age, their trunks becomes hollow which makes ring counting and carbon dating impossible as there is hardly any old wood left. Added to this, yews have this unusual ability to arrest their growth for centuries on end if conditions are unfavourable, until the environment becomes favourable again which reawakens the tree, and it starts growing again. During these years, the tree stops adding tree rings and girth to its trunk. Determining the age of yews is, hence, mostly guesswork. There are claims as high as 5,000–9,500 years, but these values are unrealistic.

According to local legend the yews at Kingley Vale were planted as a memorial for a battle fought between the Vikings and the Anglo Saxons in the year 859, but some sources claim the trees are two thousand years old.

Nevertheless, the survival of the Kingley Vale yews is remarkable because most ancient yew trees across Europe were felled after the 14th century when English bowmen started preferring staves to be made from straight-grained yew wood, which is reputedly the hardest coniferous timber in the world. This wood was imported by royal decree with barrels of wine from Portugal and Spain.

Kingley Vale is one of the few major groves of yews remaining today. The Ancient Yew Forest of Kingley Vale | Amusing Planet

The Yews

The evergreen Yews stand out from the deciduous Oaks, Ash, Holly and Hornbeams of Kingley Vale

Kingley Vale: Yew Regeneration Project

Some old trees eventually bend their branches to the ground where they take root and form a new tree. This process is called "layering' and is very common in yew trees. Sadly this natural process is being threatened by high numbers of non- native fallow deer which love to browse the fresh shoots.

This mini enclosure allows us to monitor the effects of deer browsing on yew regeneration. Can you notice a difference in the growth inside and outside the enclosure?

Fact: if you visit the large 'grandfather' yew by the coombe you will see two successive generations of tree which have 'layered' from the original.


Despite the statement in the article from Amusing England that the ground under these trees is so dark that no vegetation of any kind, not even grass, grows, moss does grow under the yews. Moss is sometimes less noticed by those who focus their attention on trees and flowing plants

Fox-tail Feather-moss Thamnobryum alopecurum is quite abundant in places on the yew forest floor. T. alopecurum grows on rocks by streams and rivers, often at or just above the normal water level, and on shaded coastal and inland rocks. It also grows on the ground, coppice stools and tree bases in at least mildly base-rich woodland. Detached balls of

T. alopecurum are sometimes found in some quantity on woodland floors. Thamnobryum-alopecurum.pdf ( Yew forest and chalk soil are base-rich

Algae were present on some yew bark

Epiphytes of yew

Epiphytes are organisms (such as lichens and bryophytes) which grow on trees and are not parasitical of them; they obtain water and energy from the air and photosynthesis, not from trees. ‘A plant which uses another plant, typically a tree, for its physical support, but which does not draw nourishment from it’/. The Oxford Dictionary of Botany

Epiphytes are important in many ways. First, their physical presence and diversity remind us that a forest or woodland is more than the sum total of its trees, becoming an ecosystem of multi-layered complexity. This links to the growing awareness within conservation that a multitude of small organisms, including bryophyte and lichen epiphytes, contribute importantly to the structure and function of healthy ecosystems. Second, epiphytes are of immense cultural significance. They are indicators of clean air and provide a warning of the negative impacts of pollution on human health, and they provide a sense of place with nature. Learning to discriminate between some simple epiphyte species and communities makes it possible to orientate and understand a woodland biogeographically, for example by recognising a globally rare temperate rainforest, ... It also becomes possible to recognise woodlands of special interest, such as those with long ecological continuity that are biodiversity hotspots. Ind.Species.LOW.indb (

When we look at yews, at first sight it appears as if they support few or no epiphytes; but when you look carefully there are some.

In research these epiphytes have been observed on Yews

Frequent epiphytes on yew trees in Reenadinna Wood, south-west Ireland (from Kelly 1981)

On tree bases and lower parts of trunk


Isothecium myosuroides Brid.

I. myurum (Brid.) Brid.

Lejeunea cavifolia (Ehrh.) Lindb.

Marchesinia mackaii (Hook.) Gray

Metzgeria furcata (L.) Dum.

Neckera complanata (Hedw.) Hüben.


Lobaria laetevirens (Lightf.) Zahlbr.

On branches and upper parts of trunk


Drepanolejeunea hamatifolia (Hook.) Schiffn.

Frullania dilatata (L.) Dum.

F. fragilifolia (Tayl.) Gott., Lindenb. & Nees F. germana (Tayl.) Gott., Lindenb. & Nees [= F. teneriffae (F. Weber) Nees]

F. microphylla (Gott.) Pearson

F. tamarisci (L.) Dum.

Harpalejeunea ovata auct. non-(Hook.) Schiffn. [= H. molleri (Steph.) Grolle]

Lejeunea ulicina (Tayl.) Gott. Lindenb. & Ness [= Microlejeunea ulicina (Tayl.) Evans]

Metzgeria furcata (L.) Dum.

Ulota bruchii Hornsch. ex Brid.

U. crispa (Hedw.) Brid.


Normandina pulchella (Borrer) Nyl. Pannaria cf. pityrea (DC.) Degel.

Sticta limbata (Sm.) Ach. Thomas, P.A. and Polwart, A. (2003),

List from Taxus baccata L.. Journal of Ecology, 91: 489-524.

I could only see the lower trunk and branches. This is what I saw. Please note: bryophytes and lichens are notoriously difficult to identify in the field; these identifications are all provisional; they may not be correct!


Plagiothecium species, possibly P. nemorale

Possibly Thamnobryum alopecurum

Metzgeria furcata


Lepraria finkii

Opegrapha vermicellifera

Epiphytes on trees other than Yew


Hypnum curpessiforme on Hawthorne

Polytrichum formosum


Usnea species

Xanothoria perientina

Hypnogymnia physodes on Hawthorne

Lecidella elaeochroma on birch

Parmotrema perlatum on birch

Probably Pertusaria multipuncta on oak

Fungi on wood (not yew)

Fungi and plants and trees can have a symbiotic relationship, where the Mycelium [the network of fungal threads or hyphae] can actually fuse with the root systems of plants and trees, creating a cross-kingdom web known as the mycorrhizal (meaning 'fungus root') network. This network benefits everyone involved. Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants produce sugars, vitamins and in some cases fats, which via their roots, the fungi can absorb. In turn, the fungi help the trees and plants absorb water and minerals from the soil, beyond the reach of their roots and root hairs. Mycelium: Exploring the hidden dimension | Kew. However, the fruiting bodies of fungi growing on trees are not epiphytic nor connected to a mutually beneficial mycorrhizal network; fungus growing on a tree is usually a sign that the tree is decaying or dying; their mycelium is killing the tree and/or decomposing the tree. Fungi feed on organic matter; some fungi are tree pathogens and some are xylophagous (i.e. their hyphae decompose dead wood). The decomposition of the wood of trees by xylophagous fungi serves a useful ecological function in recycling carbon,

Phylloporia sp

Stereum rugosum

Tramestes versicolor

Bjerkandera adusta

Auricularia mesenterica

Ancient monuments

The Devils Humps

These two round barrows are known as the Devil's Humps or the Kings' Graves.

Along with two bell barrows and two pond barrows to the south west, they form part of a linear round barrow cemetery which is partly enclosed by (contemporary) earthworks around the three limbs of the Y-shaped hill.

Local legend has it that these Bronze age graves actually contain the Viking chieftains killed in a battle with the Saxons. The yews round about mark the graves of other warriors. Their ghosts are said to haunt the area.

Alternatively, if you prefer the Devil hypothesis, you can arrange to meet him by running around the barrows 'six or seven times'. Kingley Vale Barrow / Cairn Cemetery – The Modern



bottom of page