Churchyards, The Oldest Meadow and an Important Carbon Store?

A Caring for God’s Acre volunteer enjoys some happy summer botanising: Credit – Caring for God’s Acre

Harriet Carty of Caring for God’s Acre explores the history and rich biodiversity of our churchyards.

Whilst many of our churches and chapel buildings have been extended, rebuilt and generally altered from the original, probably modest building that was consecrated centuries ago, the churchyard may be little altered. We know that land around church buildings was consecrated along with the building and that this land would have been enclosed, initially perhaps with hurdles or hedging and then through the erection of a stone wall, either drystone or lime mortared. The churchyard was an important space, used for burial (most graves were un-memorialised until the C17th or later) and for outdoor services as well as more general use including archery practice, markets and games. In other words it was largely grassland, managed either through scything to produce hay which could form part of the vicar’s stipend, or through grazing. Depending on the age of the original church, these burial grounds may be the most ancient enclosed land in a parish, town or city, making these sites really special for wildlife as well as for people.

So the grassland may be ancient, with a rich array of grasses, flowering plants, fungi and lichens typical of old, species-rich grassland which was widespread prior to the 1960s and is now rare (approximately 3% remains). N.B. whilst many churchyards and all cemeteries are not many centuries old, most predate the 1960s and can contain species-rich grassland. Interestingly this richness and species diversity also extends beyond the visible grassland into the soil below. This soil may contain a mirroring array of grass and flowering plant roots, fungi, bacteria and other microbes.

Both above and below the ground there are many creatures associated with meadows which include a range of insects and other invertebrates from pollinators such as moths and butterflies to detritivores breaking down dead material in the soil. There are mammals above and below ground; shrews, mice, voles and moles, plus creatures feeding on them including stoats, weasels and foxes. Look out for slow worms, frogs and toads as well as birds feeding on flowers, seeds and also animals. Song thrush and wagtail may use areas of shorter grass whilst seed eaters such as green and gold finches can be seen in summer and autumn feeding in the longer grassland containing seeding flowerheads.    

Of course it’s not all about meadows and grassland, other aspects of churchyards are also ancient and unchanged, full of life and diversity. These include the trees, particularly the ancients and veterans, of which the yews are the most renowned. Veteran trees host a wide range of species which might be feeding on dead and dying wood and using crevices, holes and flaking bark as shelter and nesting places. They may also feast on buds, shoots, flowers, leaves and each other! There are over 650 species of beetle alone in the UK which are associated with dead and decaying wood. Whilst yews do not have many creatures associated with them, probably due to their toxicity, I have yet to visit a churchyard that does not have a goldcrest within the canopy of a yew or other conifer.

 

 

Churchyards and cemeteries are now characterised by fabulous stonework as the C17th century craze for permanent memorialisation continues to this day. Have a closer look at that churchyard wall next time you are near one, could it have been first erected many hundreds of years ago and what complexity of lichens, mosses, plants, spiders, amphibians, reptiles and mammals does it contain? Monuments give a landscape of their own with a variety of shape, stone type, ridges and indentations all of which may have different lichen and moss species favouring slight changes in light, humidity, temperature and substrate. Of approximately 2,000 lichen species in the UK about a third have been found in churchyards, half of which are seldom if ever found elsewhere. Soil cracks and hollows around monuments and gaps in the joints of complex memorials such as crosses or chest tombs give holes for creatures and the proximity of stonework allows species to move between them.

It is of course the combination of all these features and habitats, the mosaic that truly makes burial grounds so special for wildlife. We now know that there are at least 25,000 burial grounds in England and Wales alone, so this is a significant landholding with an important part to play in caring for our beleaguered natural world and in restoring nature back out from this ark or refuge, into the wider landscape.

Through this richness of life, both above and below ground, much carbon may be stored. Trees are well known as carbon stores and some of those veterans have been locking away carbon for centuries. Grassland is less often thought of as a carbon store as there is little material above ground but that grassland soil, teeming with variety and life is really significant. Most church communities are committed to reduce their carbon footprint, usually thinking initially about the church buildings. Don’t forget your churchyards however, you may find that small management changes can make a significant difference and that churchyard biodiversity and carbon are excellent ways to involve your wider communities.

Caring for God’s Acre are currently working with the Church of England and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) to start to measure just how much carbon may be locked within a species-rich, well managed churchyard with initial results expected soon. We have also produced an Action Pack sheet on carbon (sponsored by the Churches of England and Wales), giving tips on how to maximise carbon sequestration and minimise greenhouse gas release through churchyard management. Please take a look HERE

The other action you might consider is to record the wildlife seen within your local churchyard, chapel yard or cemetery. We have been drawing together existing biological records for a few years now, whilst also encouraging new records from experienced naturalists and new recorders alike. These records give vital information for those managing burial grounds and are starting to build a regional and national picture of burial ground importance, vital for understanding, management and also changing attitudes within the public and decision makers alike. Please let us know what you find (ideally by using the iNaturalist app).

How about joining in with Churches Count on Nature 2023 and organising a nature count during Love Your Burial Ground week in early June? You’ll find lots of information and support on our website (www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk) on the Resources and Be Involved pages.