Churchyard management for conservation is not the same as domestic gardening for wild life. It is important to appreciate that wild life gardening is about the creation of something that mimics a natural habitat but was not there naturally. By contrast, churchyard management for wild life is principally about conservation – conserving what is there, not generally trying to create something that is not.
What therefore can churchyard authorities do to help preserve and conserve the unique nature of the land in their care? I shall offer here a basic summary of the issues that seem to me to be the most important.
Investigate what information is available from old photographs and archived documents about the churchyard in times past. This should be followed by a careful survey of the plant and if possible the animal life present in the churchyard. There may be experienced naturalists living in the parish but it is likely that outside guidance will be needed; county naturalist trusts are almost always willing to help. I cannot stress too strongly the importance of always obtaining expert assistance – well meaning but misguided projects and enthusiastic amateurs can cause more harm than good and result in a wilderness rather than a wild life reserve.
Given the information about the wild life in your churchyard, a management plan should then be prepared; again expert help may be needed. But it is important not to be impatient and imagine you can achieve all your objectives and realise all your ambitions within the first twelve months.
Most of the ground area in practically every churchyard is occupied by grass, sometimes of relatively recent origin, but sometimes an invaluable relic of ancient meadow. The bulk of this grass should be left unmown until late summer when the wild flowers will have set their seeds, leaving only mown pathways to facilitate grave visiting. Grass around the base of gravestones should be trimmed carefully by hand so the growth of shade and moisture-loving lichens on the stone is not adversely affected by exposure to full sun. By late summer and after mowing, the cuttings should be left for a week or so and turned occasionally – as hay is in farm fields.
Use no pesticides or weed killers unless locally to treat a serious problem – spot treating invasive weeds such as docks or ground elder for example – and apply no fertiliser to the grass as this will encourage it to grow lush and lank to the detriment of any wild flowers.
Resist the temptation to try and create a wild flower area by clearing a patch and sowing a wild flower seed mixture. Isolated patches of wild flowers in a churchyard, even assuming they will establish, can look anachronistic or plain silly. It may be possible to enhance the local churchyard flora with seed or plants of missing species but the introductions must be of known British provenance. A specialist wild flower nursery will give advice.
Where hedges do not exist along the churchyard boundary, plant new ones using a mixture of native species including beech, blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel and holly. Birds will feed on the fruits and nest in the hedge while the hedge bottom will in time be colonised by herbaceous plants like hedge mustard that favour this special habitat and in turn will attract their own characteristic wild life.
If the churchyard contains few or no trees, plant some, the number and kind depending on the space available – but be sure not to end up creating a wood for a future generation to deal with! Although exotic trees have been planted in graveyards for centuries and any already present should remain and be cared for, I believe new plantings should be of native species. Oaks are good trees with which to start because more types of creature in Britain are dependant on or make use of our two native oak species than any other kind of tree. They are host to many hundreds of species of moth, beetle and other insect (more than forty are responsible for causing conspicuous and characteristically attractive galls), many kinds of spider and other invertebrates. Over four hundred lichen species have been found growing on oaks, along with around sixty-five kinds of moss and liverwort and over four thousand different fungi – albeit many microscopic – while of course many birds and several mammals are habitually associated with the trees.
Do not be too scrupulous in clearing away twigs and fallen small branches as they are important habitats for many organisms including numerous small animals, fungi and mosses. By similar token, minimise path treatments to those needed for public safety – like clearing slippery algal growth – or for the removal of invasive weeds. Many species of small flowering plant as well as some mosses and lichens grow harmlessly on and in gravel and brick paths.
Erect several types of bird nesting box in appropriate places in the hope of attracting a range of different species. Undertake some research into the various types of box available to discover how different bird species prefer boxes of differing overall size, shape, hole diameter, position and compass orientation. Organise hedge cutting to follow the time when nestlings will have flown. And do not disturb any existing natural bird nests – removing martins’ or swallows’ nests from buildings is sacrilege; and according to tradition brings bad luck.
Repair of stonework should be done carefully with minimal damage to lichen and mosses growing on it. Where re-pointing is necessary some loss of species growing on is unavoidable but experienced contractors will know this and work sympathetically. Do not clean headstones other than gently to render the inscriptions legible but do not scrape off lichens; remember these headstones may be their only habitats for miles around.
And finally, do not plant non-native flowers and shrubs in your churchyard – although they may attract pollinating insects while birds may feed on their seeds, my view is that they should be left to gardens where they are more appropriate and can properly be tended.
For more information on Stefan’s activities, including his debut novel, The Marmalade Pot, visit www.stefanbuczacki.co.uk.
© Stefan Buczacki 2021
This is the first in an occasional series written by notable environmental and biodiversity experts.