Biodiversity in Churchyards
Churchyards are an intimate mixture of a variety of habitats, both ancient and modern.
The grassland may be a relict of the grassland that existed over two thousand years ago on the site of a pre-Christian sacred place. Grass and wildflower species would have invaded the churchyard from outside the boundary, and then become lost in the wider countryside through changes in agriculture.
The yew tree often found in churchyards was sacred to pre-Christian religions, symbolising immortality and knowledge, and was probably the basis for many of these ritual sites.
As churches were built the boundaries of the churchyard were identified with ditches and banks, possibly with a hedge or trees or with walls, built of local stone.
Trees from local woodland formed the structure of the church roofs, and bats followed the timbers into the churches, some colonies being as old as the churches themselves.
The antiquity of the buildings and stones, allows colonisation by slow-growing lichens that can take over a hundred years to grow only a few centimetres. The variety of conditions around a churchyard and types of stone provide opportunities for large numbers of different lichens to be found.
More recent churchyards and cemeteries can also provide good wildlife habitat especially where ornamental or native trees and shrubs have been planted. These and the insects they attract can provide food and nesting sites for a wide range of birds such as the spotted flycatcher. Church buildings, old and new, can provide lofty nesting sites for swifts, owls and kestrels.
However, sensitive management is the key to maximising the wildlife value of these important habitats.
Caring for God’s Acre provides advice on all aspects of churchyard management for wildlife and people.
For further information about “Sharing Information about Wildlife” visit the National Biodiversity Network website www.nbn.org.uk