"To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

From "Auguries of Innocence"

by William Blake

Monday, 3 August 2015

Churchyards as Wildlife Sanctuaries

I first became interested in the idea of churchyards as wildlife havens a few years ago when I visited St Giles, Packwood. I'd gone in search of Snowdrops that Edith Holden in "The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady" had mentioned seeing at Packwood Hall and church. I met a lady in the church who advised me to return in a month or so to see the Primroses and who also mentioned that a botanical survey had found over 100 species of flowers in the churchyard. I did go back and see the Primroses and it was a wonderful sight and I've also visited St Giles in early summer when the churchyard was full of wild flowers.

Soon after this I purchased a copy of Francesca Greenoak's book "Wildlife in the Churchyard -The Plants and Animals of God's Acre". I know many of you already have this book and its a total delight with charming illustrations by Clare Roberts. Its out of print sadly but its easy to get hold of a second hand copy. I also discovered several projects and campaigns to promote the value of churchyards as burial grounds and for their importance to people, our history and wildlife. These include "Caring for God's Acre" www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk and The Living Churchyards Project www.arcworld.org/projects.asp?projectID=271

I've visited quite a few churchyards now both locally and while on holiday which are "managed" for wildlife and those that stand out, including St Giles, are the churchyard at Baddesley Clinton which was full of Lady's Smock and Orange Tips when I visited in Spring; St Patricks, Earlswood with its wonderful display of Primroses and another local churchyard which has masses of Fox and Cub flowers and nesting Spotted Flycatchers.

Amanda from "The Quiet Walker" and I have talked about visiting wildlife rich churchyards this year and doing a series of posts. You can read Amanda's lovely first post on Otley church here

Apologies if the links above don't work. Even with the new computer I can't seem to get blogger to accept them even using the Link tab. Please just copy and paste.

I decided I'd pick the local churchyard of St John the Baptist, Lea Marston, about 20 minutes from home. I do occasionally visit this churchyard but in the past its mainly been to look for birds. I've seen a good variety of bird species in the past although today the only birds spotted were a Blackbird and Wood Pigeon!

The church which dates back to the 1300's is surrounded on 2 sides by woodland and several yew trees grow on the side of the churchyard nearest the road.

The first part of the churchyard where many of the graves are recent is kept neat and tidy so that people can visit the graves but a large area at the rear of the churchyard is wildlife friendly where the grass has been left to grow and wild flowers flourish. Apparently, there are plans to plant more wild flowers in this area.

Flowers in the "wilder" part of the churchyard, where the older graves are located, included Lady's Bedstraw, Betony, Knapweed, Mallow, Buttercups, Speedwell and Ragwort together with various species of grasses.

Knapweed and Betony flourishing among the gravestones

There were many species of tree including Yew, Oak, Holly and berries were ripening on the Rowan.

Lady's Bedstraw





The older gravestones were covered in lichens and mosses

The whole meadow area was full of bees, hoverflies and butterflies.

Red-tailed Bumble Bee

This Ragwort plant was covered in Cinnabar Moth caterpillars - the first I've seen this year.

Hopefully, the caterpillars were almost ready to pupate as there wasn't much foliage left on the plant!

Butterflies seen included: Comma, Brimstone, Small Skippers, Gatekeepers, Holly Blues, Meadow Browns, Ringlet and Large and Small Whites

Hoverfly and Gatekeeper

Small Skipper

Behind the meadow area there were nettle patches providing habitat for caterpillars and

it was interesting to see this Buddleia that had self-seeded in a crack in the church walls.

I think this may be Marjoram?? growing en masse around the base of a bench. It wasn't yet fully in flower so it was difficult to id.

I spotted a grey squirrel and molehills and this hole in the grass. It looks a bit big to be a bumble bee nest? perhaps its the entrance to a mammal's tunnel?

Brown-lipped Snail

Blackberries are beginning to appear,

as are Elderberries and

Young Acorns.

I always find churchyards such as this exceedingly tranquil and peaceful. They are wonderful places to sit and watch birds and insects flying all around you.

Its estimated that there are at least 20,000 churchyards in the UK and on average each covers around an acre (0.4 hectares) so together this provides 8000 hectares of green space with the potential for nature conservation over at least part of the area. Churchyards are found in many different locations and are often the oldest enclosed area of land in any parish. Their value for wildlife was first recognised at the end of the last century. The vast majority have been enclosed with boundary walls since the 13th century and are at least as old as the church. Apart from their use as burial grounds, these meadows have never been fertilised forming semi-natural grassland. With the intensification of agriculture, the conversion of old pastures to arable crops and improved grasslands, churchyards may be the last few fragments of ancient flower-rich grassland in a parish.

Walls surrounding the churchyard provide an important habitat for plants and mosses and shelter for bees and slow-worms. Churchyards contain old trees and in England and Wales over 800 Yews are more than 500 years old. Church buildings and the surrounding churchyard provide an important habitat for many species of bird, bat, mammals, reptiles, lichens, mosses, wildflowers, fungi (including waxcaps), insects and wild flowers.

Sadly, some are very neat, tidy, and manicured and there can, of course, be conflicts of interest with some people equating conservation with untidiness and hence disrespect for those buried in the churchyard. But compromise is possible, such as at Lea Marston where parts of the churchyard near the most recent graves are kept tidy with a wildlife area covering part of the churchyard where the graves are much older and no longer likely to be visited.

The woodland next to the church was once part of the West Midlands Bird Club Ladywalk Reserve (I had my best ever view here of a Kingfisher on a pool one cold and frosty morning many many years ago). These days it forms part of an Environmental Centre owned by EON.

Plenty of lichens on the wall at the front of the church but sadly I couldn't find any plants growing from cracks.

The church is always kept locked and this notice explains why. I find this really sad and depressing and it makes me extremely angry that people can break into a church and steal things.

Before leaving I got talking to a gentleman who was on the parish council and he explained that the church had once been the Estate Church for the Hams Hall Estate. The Estate and the area of Birmingham known as Saltley were owned by the Adderley family for 262 years. Following the death of Charles Adderley in 1906 the Hall and estate were put up for sale to pay death duties. Bought by a wealthy American shipping magnate, the hall was initially demolished and then rebuilt in Gloucestershire as a Hall of Residence for students at the Royal Agricultural College. An electric generating station was built at Hams Hall but today its a vast Distribution Park (and a good place to spot Waxwings with many berry trees lining the roads!).

CEGB who once ran the Environmental Centre re-erected the medieval Lea Ford Cottage (seen in the photo below) to preserve it.

The area outside the church once formed the entrance to the Adderley Estate and this memorial marks a visit by William Gladstone. Sadly, the plaque has had to be removed because someone tried to steal it :(

I'll try and visit the churchyard at least once a Season to see what other wildlife appears as the months pass.


Bovey Belle said...

What a brilliant post. When we used to travel to the West country and Yorkshire on holiday we were often in old graveyards, looking for ancestors, and it is a joy to see graveyards left to their own devices so they become a wildlife haven. Unfortunately here in Wales it would seem that the chapel folk have Very Tidy Minds, and a local graveyard which was half an acre of Aquilegia in the springtime and the most STUNNING picture of beauty, was mown within an inch of its life before they could start flowering and although a few amongst the headstones have survived, the total effect is lost? WHY? They flower so briefly and could be tidied up AFTER flowering surely, if there was felt a need.

Then, many years ago (1970s) when I was here on holiday with a penpal, she pointed out a small roadside chapel and said that the plot used to be surrounded by the most beautiful trees, until one of the Chapel Elders decreed that they went there to pray and not be distracted by nature and they were all FELLED . . . I find it hard to understand such narrowness of vision and meanness of spirit.

I have the God's Acre book (I presume it is the same one) and it is so beautiful.

You are doing better than us for butterflies. We had plenty with the first hatchings in the spring, but my Buddleia is bereft of them now - though I did see lots of Meadow Browns and Ringlets, a couple of Gatekeepers and a Small White on a neighbour's land recently - he has planted it with trees just to get the payments for that over 16 years I think it is. NO WAY would he do anything for wildlife, no more than another farmer we know who cuts his hedges in JUNE to "keep them tidy". It is illegal of course, but no-one checks up on it round here.

Margaret Adamson said...

A very interesting post of all you found round the cemetery. yes I have gone to them also and smetimes it is amazing the bird life and wildflowers there is to be found.

Ragged Robin said...

Bovey Belle - Thank you so much.

I read with great sadness about the chapel yards in Wales. You must have been really upset and angry about the Aquilegia's - as you say why not at least leave them until after they have flowered. I find it hard to understand anyone who would prefer to look at close mown grass rather than an array of flowers whether wild or cultivated.

I've seen some manicured churchyards in my time and I know which type I prefer. Its good news though that there are projects around trying to turn the situation round and encourage parishioners to allow wildlife to flourish in at least part of the churchyard.

I have another Greenoak book on British Birds : Their Folklore, Names and Literature which is brilliant too :)

Although I saw so many butterflies at Oversley Wood and the churchyard, there aren't so many here in the garden. The buddleias are now flowering and there are very few butterflies on them although they are covered in bees and hoverflies.

I think the old Lower Stewardship Scheme for farmers was a bit of a waste of time for wildlife and why they aren't monitored more I shall never know. My husband knows several farmers and I can't believe how much so many of them hate wildlife. All being well I am going on a butterfly walk on a Higher Level Stewardship Farm soon and I understand the farmer does a lot to encourage wildlife so it will be interesting to see what can be done.

Margaret Adamson - Thanks very much Margaret. Its great to know you have some churchyards full of birds and wild flowers near you :)

amanda peters said...

Wonderful, wonderful post . Wish I could write like you. Funny how you too found the Ragwort covered in Cinnabar caterpillars, the conditions must be right in a churchyard.
Amanda xx

Ragged Robin said...

Amanda Peters - Thanks so much Amanda for your very kind comment. Don't underestimate yourself - your posts are always lovely, well-written, informative and full of the most creative of photos - I always wish I could do those beautiful collages you create :)

It is strange about the Cinnabars - I went to a park recently and there were dozens of Ragwort plants but not a caterpillar in sight!

Sorry I couldn't put an actual link to your blog I just can't get them to work - they are added to the draft and then when I look at the preview they have just disappeared! :(

ps I am about a third of the way through the Matthew Oates butterfly book and really really enjoying it. By reading it you can learn such a lot about butterflies from an expert and in parts the book is so amusing I am constantly laughing out loud :)

Chris Rohrer said...

That is so sad! Who would burgler a church? Frodo Baggins? Sad sad sad! Anyhow, I think you capture this idea of wildlife and churchyards/historic places very well from over the many years you've been writing. They are indeed sanctuaries in their own right. And very much like our cemeteries, there are so many amazing things that live within or around the vegetation. I think you could have cowritten that book! So my big question for you....where is the dessert? Normally you have a stop at a bakery:)

Millymollymandy said...

Another really interesting and informative post. I love wild churchyards and it's the old graves which I find the most interesting. Great to hear there are some churches which are managing the land in a wildlife friendly way, and this one seems to have struck a good balance. I want to thank you because I've just learned what the wildflower I was looking at yesterday growing on the grass verge is, Betony! :-) I have seen several butterflies on it, wonder if I can collect seed and scatter it in my garden.... :-)

Ragged Robin said...

Chris Rohrer - Thanks so much for your lovely comment Chris :) I am so glad you've enjoyed the posts over the years :)

Its very sad about burglars and churches - some vile people even nick lead off the room. An awful lot of churches are kept locked to keep items safe or have alarmed areas you can't enter:(

I missed the cake too :( but sadly no tea room nearby :(

Millymollymandy - Thanks very much Mandy. Some of the old graves can have fascinating stories behind them - a few churches have very informative guidebooks.

So glad I helped with the Betony - must admit I had to look it up as I've never seen much round here. Attracting lots of pollinators at the church too and yes I'd collect those seeds :)

David Turner said...

Great post Caroline, full of wonderful photos and interesting nature in what looks like a lovely little church to explore & wander around. So sad it has to be kept locked and as you say it is very depressing that anyone could damage or steal things from a church :-(

I rather liked the mosses on the old gravestones whilst all the wildflowers were simply lovely, as was the excellent photo of the Small Skipper on the betony.

I look forward to seeing more from the churchyard come autumn :-)

Kindest regards :-)

Ragged Robin said...

David Turner - Thanks very much David. Most of the churches that remain locked up all seem to do so for the same reason :(

I love to find mosses and lichens growing on stone - like miniature worlds :)

Glad you liked the Small Skipper photo - it was very heavily cropped. I really should have taken the Canon bridge.

Best wishes Caroline

Deb said...

Lovely post Caroline and such a pretty church. That's so sad that they have to lock the church because of thieves, I bet it's lovely inside. ;-)

Toffeeapple said...

I think I have caught up with you now, after a surprise holiday to France (where we had no internet) had me lagging a great deal behind in blog reading. Only 143 to go.

I thoroughly enjoyed your posts and pictures, shame you were not sure of the Purple Emperor sighting.

We drove past Coughton Court last week and wondered how to say it, having looked up the pronunciation, I am now quietly confident.

Ragged Robin said...

Deb - Thanks so much. There were some ladies in the church arranging flowers for a wedding the next day - I was very tempted to ask if I could have a look round but didn't quite have the nerve!!!

Toffeeapple - Thanks so much. Hope you had a wonderful surprise holiday in France :)

You have me intrigued about the pronunciation of Coughton Court! I call it "Cofftun Court". Bet I am hopelessly wrong!!

Good luck with catching up on blog posts :)

Countryside Tales said...

Such an interesting subject. I do look at Churchyards through different eyes since reading God's Acre.

Ragged Robin said...

Countryside Tales - Thank you - it is a fascinating topic :)

Toffeeapple said...

Holiday was deliciously relaxing, than you.

Apparently it is pronounced caught-on!

Ragged Robin said...

Toffeeapple - So glad you had a great and relaxing time :)

Oh gosh! I was hopelessly wrong!! Thanks so much - I will remember the correct way :)

Jeremy said...

Lovely post. I certainly hope that when I am dead and gone, they will let wildflowers grow over my grave, rather than making the land around my carcass tidy but lifeless! My local church in Wales has some nice displays of primroses, bluebells, etc., in Spring: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ble2FDDoPaI

Ragged Robin said...

Jeremy - Thanks so much for the comment and link to the video (I will check that out). As you say, so much better to see a churchyard full of flowers, birds and insects rather than a manicured, sterile desert! I've found a few good ones round here where wildlife is allowed to flourish :)