Saturday, 26 November 2011

Living Churchyards

Today I received a list of all the churches in the area that are or have been until recently 'managed for wildlife'. This was sent to me by the Yorkshire Living Churchyard Project which is run by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. From the list, it seems as though churches were entering into this enthusiastically about 10 years ago but that some have fallen back a little in recent years. If you would like information on how your church can develop its churchyard ('God's Acre') so that the environment is sympathetic to the natural habitat and the ecology of native plants and animal and insect species, go to

Churchyard management seminars are held every year to help people learn more about how to take usually quite simple steps to preserve and encourage the presence of wildlife. Members of the Living Churchyard Team are willing to visit parishes and offer advice. They will list the species seen and heard and create an annotated map of the site to help with planning its care. Often, we just don't realise what we have living in our churchyards! Or what we might be destroying by over-managing them.

Muker Churchyard, Swaledale
Some practical  tips
Headstones are important sites for lichen and mosses, depending on the type of stone. There are around 300 different types of lichen found only in British churchyards. Headstones should not be cleaned (for example, with some of the sprays advertised for the purpose!), but left undisturbed. Grass should not be cut too close to the base of headstones as this may damage both the stone and the equipment used for mowing, and, in fact, the longer grass left at the base provides shelter for some small animals such as frogs.

Boundary hedges are the natural habitat of many species of bird and small mammals. Hedges are best trimmed to an 'A' - thicker at the bottom - with a few feet of uncut grass at the base. This provides shelter and food sources for young hedgehogs. The small ferns and mosses that grow on boundary walls are important. Where walls need restoration, if this is done in sections plants can gradually recolonize the wall. Lime mortar should be used wherever possible.

Trees and shrubs provide nesting sites, look-out posts and insects for birds. Native species should be planted, preferably those that grow naturally in the surrounding countryside. Shrubs that bear berries and nuts such as hawthorn, holly and hazel are valuable for food. Ivy provides nesting sites for wrens and, later in the year, nectar and berries after other food sources have been used up.

Many churchyards were created out of meadowland and provide a natural refuge for species of plants and animals that are being lost through intensive farming. Even a small churchyard may contain over 100 different species. Bees, butterflies, moths, frogs, lizards, birds and small mammals find their home territory there and, where sections of the churchyard are left as meadowland or long grass, rarer plants may move in, such as cowslips and early purple orchids, especially where traditional methods of cutting or grazing have meant that fertilizers and persticides have not been used. Most churchyards have sections of close-mown grass around paths and frequently visited graves. Less frequently visited parts of the churchyard may be kept as permanent short grass (about 4-5 inches) and cutting should be avoided in early May to allow for flowering and seeding. It is also a good idea to create areas of permanent long grass around the churchyard though, to avoid scrub invasion and maintain grass species, these should be divided into sections and a different section cut in autumn of each year. These areas of long grass are important for the overwintering of moth eggs and pupae, frogs, lizards shrews and voles. 

Spring meadow plants 
bird's foot trefoil, cat's ear, red clover, cowslip, lady's smock, bugle

Summer meadow plants
meadow buttercup, meadow cranesbill, ox-eye daisy,knapweed, field sabacious,

Hay and grass cuttings
Grass cuttings should be removed if at all possible, to prevent the smothering of smaller flowering plants and to avoid changing the soil composition as the grass decays. Hay cannot be used for livestock if it contains plants harmful to animals such as ragwort. Local councils may operate a composting scheme. If they do not, cuttings are best made into small compost heaps by mixing with the grass with other biodegradable materials such as twigs and pruning waste. This allows air to circulate. Compost left near trees can cause damage to the tree roots. Compost heaps are home to bacteria and invertibrate animals that provide food for frogs, toads, slow worms and birds. Hedgehogs and other small mammals hibernate in them .

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