In a broad range of species-including humans-it has been demonstrated that telomere length declines throughout life and that it may be involved in cell and organismal senescence. This potential link to ageing and thus to fitness has triggered recent interest in understanding how variation in telomere length is inherited and maintained. However, previous studies suffer from two main drawbacks that limit the possibility of understanding the relative importance of genetic, parental and environmental influences on telomere length variation. These studies have been based on (i) telomere lengths measured at different time points in different individuals, despite the fact that telomere length changes over life, and (ii) parent-offspring regression techniques, which do not enable differentiation between genetic and parental components of inheritance. To overcome these drawbacks, in our study of a songbird, the great reed warbler, we have analysed telomere length measured early in life in both parents and offspring and applied statistical models (so-called 'animal models') that are based on long-term pedigree data. Our results showed a significant heritability of telomere length on the maternal but not on the paternal side, and that the mother's age was positively correlated with their offspring's telomere length. Furthermore, the pedigree-based analyses revealed a significant heritability and an equally large maternal effect. Our study demonstrates strong maternal influence on telomere length and future studies now need to elucidate possible underlying factors, including which types of maternal effects are involved.