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.
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
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?
Blackberries are beginning to appear,
as are Elderberries and
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.