Feel free to use this A-Z of churchyard conservation to inform and inspire others
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"A" is for ANT Mounds
Churchyards have become a refuge for the harmless Yellow Meadow Ant, Lasius flavus, because it lives in permanent pasture which has become a rare habitat.The Yellow Ant builds mounds of earth full of passages and galleries in which they rear their brood, feeding them on large numbers of insects. The nests, which can be up to 100 years old, are like icebergs, as much below the ground as above. They are often built against a gravestone, facing the sun, and do not cause any damage.
We would always advocate to leave these nests which add character and diversity to the churchyard. However should you want to remove them the nest can be moved. If it is just the mound that is in the way then cutting it off at ground level in the winter (not mowing over it in the summer!) will level the ground but not harm the ants who are all in the soil below at that time. If you want to move the whole nest this should be done in summer, in August, after the winged young males and females have left the nest. It should be moved into a sunny spot and not destroyed.
"B" is for Burial & Bees
Although 70% of the population choose cremation there are increasing environmental concerns about the pollutants being released into the atmosphere. By choosing coffins made of natural sustainable materials for both burials and cremation we can decrease the carbon footprint of our last journey on earth.
Wicker and cardboard coffins, and felt shrouds are all locally sourced alternatives to the traditional coffins which are often imported from the other side of the world, involve logging of sensitive areas or are made of MDF using a range of polluting materials.
Using locally made coffins is sustainable and supports the local economy – whether it be wool from Wales or willow from Devon.
In 1666 an act of Parliament decreed that everyone had to be buried in a woollen shroud to stimulate the failing wool trade – wouldn’t that be great if we could have that sort of logic today!
For more information contact The Natural death centre, charitable project giving independent funeral advice www.naturaldeath.org.uk, 0871 2882098
All bees get all their food from flowers, pollen is their protein and nectar their carbohydrate. For any problems with honey bees the local beekeepers association should be consulted. Solitary bees sometimes cause alarm because, although each bee builds her nest alone, they may nest in numbers close to each other. Solitary bees do not sting and are fascinating to watch as they make their nests. Mason bees have been accused of destroying walls but their jaws are so weak that they can only make holes in mortar that is already crumbling badly.
Churchyards are a haven for bumble bees if there is a flowery sward and if some areas of grass are allowed to grow long. They nest in old mouse nests, some species underground and some on the surface. If the above ground nests are encountered when the grass is being cut the bees fly around because they cannot find the nest entrance – they are not being aggressive. The best thing to do is to leave the nest alone, mark it with a stick and avoid mowing that spot. Nests are only annual so it will not come in the same place the following year.
"C" is For Compost
In churchyards the most popular place for the compost heap is under a beautiful veteran yew. However uncomposted grass is lethal to trees as the runoff is too acidic and can damage the roots as can the heat from the decomposing process. Compost heaps are best tucked in a corner but away from tree roots. They can be shielded from view with hazel hurdles or confined by a sturdy set of bins that can be made with pallets, which will weather and blend in with time. If you do decide to move the compost heap, avoid clearing it in winter when creatures such as hedgehogs, toads, slow worms and newts may be hibernating.
"D" is for Dead Wood
Dead wood provides breeding, nesting and feeding grounds for a whole host of wildlife from fungi and tiny insects to amphibians and buzzards. If you are felling or pruning a tree maybe you could leave a small pile of wood to rot on the ground to benefit wildlife.
- The pile should be a minimum of 50cm tall to benefit both animals that like the drier, lighter conditions at the top of the pile as well as the ones that like the moist darkness at the bottom.
- A variety of ages of wood benefit a wider variety of fungi and animals. Some like to live in dead wood as it begins to rot, others prefer wood that is nearly fully decomposed.
- Leave long grass near the woodpiles to provide more shelter and food.
A triangular pile of logs with a stake at the sides helps it looked managed and cared for which can be important in a public place such as a churchyard but maybe less so in your garden.
"E" is for Evergreen
Ivy and Yew trees
Ivy is a fantastic food and habitat for birds, bees and other insects. There are many places in churchyards that it can be left to grow without harm. But what about on ancient yew trees? The majority of the world’s ancient yews are in the British Isles and 80-85% of these are in churchyards so we have a special responsibility to look after them.
A few strands of ivy on a yew tree are not a problem. However, if it is allowed to grow up into the tree and bush out it can cause problems due to the weight of the foliage and the shading out of the yews own leaves. To control the ivy, remove the basal ivy stems (in 20cm lengths to stop them re-grafting). This will kill off the ivy above, in the canopy, which can later be removed from its branches.
For more management advice, fascinating articles and a gazetter of ancient and significant yews, visit the Ancient Yew Group website www.ancient-yew.org or contact The Tree Register 01234 768884. Recommended reading: Yew-A History by Fred Hageneder.
"F" is for Fungi
Why are churchyards havens for fungi?
While many countries in North West Europe have lost nearly all their fungus-rich grasslands, by happy accident, Britain has been more fortunate.
Grassland fungi need a few things:
- Grass to be kept short by regular mowing or grazing
- No artificial fertilizers
- No fungicides
Many farmers, ground keepers and gardeners take away at least one or all of the above requirements which has left sites such as churchyards, the lawns of country houses, grazed common and village greens to be the strongholds for fungi. Watch out in the autumn when the fruiting bodies of fungi appear in a mosaic of colours.
"G" is for Grassland and Grave Symbols
G is for Grassland
There are more than 20,000 churchyards of various denominations across England and Wales. They vary in size but on average they work out about an acre per churchyard. With every passing year this 20,000 acres of refuge for plants and animals is becoming increasingly important.
So why are churchyard grasslands so different to other grasslands?
There are 2 main reasons – churchyards are not artificially fertilised or re-seeded and therefore many of the grassland species that have been there for centuries are still able to flourish with the right management.
So when we view old paintings or read poems describing wildflower meadows swaying in the breeze, remember all is not lost. Although much has disappeared from the wider countryside, many of our churchyards are there, waiting to be rediscovered and managed in a way that allows them to truly flower once more.
G is for Grave symbols
What we would recognise today as churchyards didn’t appear until the eighth century. It was from the 1700’s onwards that inscriptions on stones became more detailed and many used pictorial shorthand to convey their messages:
Anchor – hope
Angel – guides to heaven
Bee/beehive – a long life well spent in useful activities, and the hope of the sweetness of heaven as a fitting reward
Clasped handsHands – clasped hands signify both the sadness of parting and the prospect of joyful reunion
Ivy – sincerity and faithfulness
I.H.S. – the first three letters (iota, eta and sigma) from the start of the Greek spelling of Jesus. Sometimes interpreted as Jesus Christ, Saviour, or In His Service.
Labyrinth – a maze signifies life’s difficult pathways, beyond which Heaven can be reached
Snake – health and healing, or sometimes used to remind against temptation!
Rope – emblem of helpfulness
Sundial – passage of time
Sword – justice and honesty
Wreath – eternal life
"H" is for Holly
Many churchyards have holly trees in them. They were often planted by buildings as they were traditionally known for giving protection from lightning strikes.
Modern science has now caught up with folklore and has shown that the spines on the leaves can act as miniature lightning conductors, thereby protecting the tree and other nearby objects. Holly is normally dioecious – it has separate male and female plants. The flowers are white and appear in the summer producing berries that are an important food for birds such as thrushes, fieldfares, redwings and waxwings. In the wild, trees start to produce berries when they are 20 years old.
"I" is for Invertebrates
Invertebrates are fascinating creatures. Without a variety of insects many of our crops and native plants would not be pollinated, our soil and water quality would decrease and other animals further up the food chain would suffer. Numbers have been declining in an alarming rate over the past few decades but there are simple things we can do to help.
- When managing churchyards or gardens variety is the key:
- Have a mixture of short turf, bare ground, tussocky grasses and flowering plants.
- Leave a range of plants to flower and set seed to increase the availability of food.
- Leave some seed heads to provide shelter and breeding sites.
- Hedgerows are important and the more flowering species in them the better.
- Ivy flowers in late autumn are a beneficial source of nectar for insects such as hoverflies.
- Leave dead wood on the ground, or standing if appropriate.
Contact buglife for more information www.buglife.org.uk, 01737 201210
"J" is for Jay
Jays, although the most colourful members of the crow family, are Jayquite difficult to see. They are shy woodland birds but also live in parks and mature gardens. The best time to see them is in the Autumn when they fly some distance to search for acorns which they bury and dig up when they need them, later in the winter.
For a soundtrack and video clip of the Jay and other birds visit the rspb website www.rspb.org.uk, 01767 693690
"K" is for Knapweed
Common knapweed is a perennial of pastures, meadows and road verges, enjoying conditions of low to moderate fertility. Around 100 tiny purple flowers are gathered together into a purple flower head. The flowers provide nectar for many insects and the seeds are a valuable food for both insects and small mammals.
Girls used to use the flowers in a love-divination game. They would pick the flowers off a flower head and put the remaining buds inside their blouse. After an hour if the remaining buds had blossomed it was said the man she would marry would soon come her way!
For information on wild plants and initiatives for their conservation contact Plantlife 01722 342730 www.plantlife.org.uk
For information on managing churchyard grassland contact:
Caring for God’s Acre, the conservation charity for churchyards and burial grounds, 01588 673041, www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk
"L" is for Lettering
In days gone by all gravestones were made from local stone and carved by hand. Letter carvers had different abilities and styles. The stones varied in colour and lent themselves to different styles of lettering. Families were free to choose what wording they wanted, without strict guidelines. Gravestones therefore, were a unique combination of the carver, the stone, and the families taste, choice of words and budget.
This uniqueness is reflected in the beginning of Great Expectations, where Pip recalls that his first notion of what his deceased parents were like “were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair”.
The art of letter-cutting was reinvigorated by craftsmen like Eric Gill (1882-1940), and Britain has led in the techniques during the past century. We are lucky to have talented letter carvers working in the tradition today, creating memorials of beauty to uniquely honour the memory of loved ones.
The Lettering and Commemorative Arts Trust (LCAT) works with over 75 fine lettercarvers, encouraging Britain's long tradition of lettercarving to flourish. It is the single most important provider of training in letter-design and letter-carving in the UK.
For more information contact 01728 688393, www.letterartstrust.org.uk
Caring for God’s Acre, the conservation charity for churchyards and burial grounds, 01588 673041, www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk
"M" is for Monuments and Memorials
Monuments reflect social history, craft skills, the development of transport, availability of materials and changing methods of manufacture. They are also a record of who lived and died in the area and give a sense of place to studies into social history and genealogy. The earliest monuments may be pagan sculpture or medieval crosses (these are likely to be Scheduled Ancient Monuments).
Around 280,000 memorials are commissioned in the United Kingdom each year. Churchyards and cemeteries are often a mix of the unique old hand carved stones reflecting the geology of the local area with the new, more standardised, memorials.
Caring for these monuments can be fraught with challenges. However they give us a tangible link with the past in a way which history books can never achieve and their conservation is a vital part of preserving the unique character of our burial grounds.
Caring for God’s Acre, the conservation charity for churchyards and burial grounds, 01588 673041, www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk
"N" is for Newt
The Great Crested Newt is our largest and most threatened species of newt. Compared with the Palmate Newt and the Smooth Newt, the Great Crested Newt is much larger (up to 15cm long) and more heavily built. In the spring males develop a crest along their back and top of the tail. They need plenty of invertebrate food and spend most of the year on dry land. They visit ponds in the breeding season (from about February to July) and can be found the rest of the year up to 500m away from water. If managed sensitively, churchyards can become havens for these newts with their healthy invertebrate populations and sheltering sites such as dry stone walls.
Great crested newts are widespread across Europe but are in decline. Britain has probably Europe’s largest population, and they are protected by UK and European law.
For more information contact The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation, 01733 558960, www.arc-trust.org
"O" is for Owl
Tawny Owl is the most likely owl to be heard in the churchyard. It will nest in the church building or in large trees and roost in winter in evergreen trees. The male makes the familiar ‘hooo-hoo-hooo’ sound while the female replies with a coarse ‘ke-wick’ call. In days gone by the Tawny Owl was seen as the harbinger of death because it often called from churchyard trees in the dark months of autumn and winter when many people died. The owls can live up to 23 years. For more information on birds, contact the British Trust for Ornithology, 01842 750050 or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 01767 680551. They both have excellent websites: www.bto.org.uk, www.rspb.org.uk
"P" is for Primrose
The primrose is the prima rosa, first flower of the year. They are abundant in many churchyards – partly due to the Victorian custom of planting primroses on the graves of small children. Years ago bunches were picked to decorate churches and as presents for parents. Children would pick primroses, bunch them up with wool and attach them to a twig, which they carried horizontally, so the flowers were not damaged. Cottage industries thrived during spring, packaging primroses in boxes and sending them by steam train to London and Birmingham markets – a piece of the countryside for city dwellers.
"Q" is for Quercus (Oak)
Oak trees are well-loved symbols of strength. We have two native species growing in the British Isles – Quercus robur, pedunculate or English Oak and Quercus petraea, Sessile or Durmast Oak, found mostly in the hillier west and north of Britain. The peduncles are the ‘stalks’ which support the acorns and the Sessile Oak acorns have no stalks.
A member of the beech family, the oak was venerated by the Druids and its botanical name is believed to derive from the Celtic quer meaning fine and cuez meaning tree.
Leintwardine has a Red Oak with mistletoe at the front of the churchyard. It is one of only three instances recorded in Britain – so quite special…
"R" is for Rooks and Rookeries
Rooks, corvus frugilegus, are those shiny black birds with thigh feathers like ‘baggy trousers’ and bare grey skin around their beaks. Often found nesting high in churchyard or village trees their close-knit colonies called rookeries can be huge. A site in Norfolk has up to 80,000 birds. Our interest and fascination with rooks apparently stems from the fact that they are highly intelligent and sociable birds. So clever that they are thought to rival non human primates in intelligence.
A Parliament of rooks describes their unusual behaviour of settling in large numbers in open fields with one rook appearing to caw loudly and continuously over the silent throng. From time to time, the other rooks call out, as if they're asking questions. Like a trial or a parliament.
Folklore tells us that it is considered lucky to have them nearby and unlucky to lose them. Something to think about if you are bothered by constantly cawing rooks in your churchyard rookery!
"S" is for Snowdrop
Snowdrops are also known as 'February fairmaids', Candlemas bells' and 'Dingle-dangle'.
It is thought that although the Snowdrop is most likely a native plant, many colonies in churchyards and monastic sites have been planted as a symbol of purity and hope.
Snowdrops are used by the Catholic church to celebrate the Feast of Candlemas on the 2nd of February. Candlemas is also known as the Festival of Lights and has a diverse history with its origins in both Christian and pagan sources.
Some churches hold a special event such as a 'Snowdrop Sunday' to celebrate their snowdrops.
"S" is for Slow-worm
The slow worm is not a worm or a snake but a legless lizard. They have a polished, cylindrical appearance and, unlike snakes, have eyelids that can blink.
They live in both urban and countryside habitats, liking allotments, waste ground, churchyards and gardens.
Their diet consists of slugs and soft-bodied invertebrates. Being cold blooded they hibernate in the winter so are mostly seen in spring and summer. Slow worms give birth to 5-10 live young 10cm in length. They grow to about 35 cm. They can live around 15 years in the wild and up to 50 years in captivity!
In churchyards the cracks in dry stone walls and old vole holes provide shelter.
The Latin name Anguis fragilis means ‘fragile snake’ and refers to the way the slow worm can drop its tail to escape predators.
"T" is for Toads
There are two kinds of toads native to Britain. These are the Common Toad
(Bufo bufo) and the rarer Natterjack Toad (Bufo calamita). The two species can be easily distinguished by the presence of a prominent yellow line down the back of the Natterjack Toad.
Toads differ from frogs - they have dry, warty looking skin, crawl rather than jump and lay their eggs in a string rather than a bunch. Often found in the dry stone walls around churchyards, toads will hunt after dusk for slugs, snails and earthworms. They sleep during the day and hibernate in the winter under rocks and stones or in a hole in the ground.
For more information contact The Amphibian and Reptile Conservation Trust, 01733 558960, www.arc-trust.org
"U" is for Urtica dioica
Or stinging nettles as we know them. This hardy perennial is extremely good for us being full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. It also has anti inflammatory properties, often used as a tea to help hay fever.
Ladybirds use nettles for raising their larvae. Many species of moth and butterfly lay their eggs on nettles sited in sunny areas. A wide range of other beneficial insects feed on the stinging nettle. So mid-June would appear to be the best time for cutting nettles to allow predators to build up and then be moved on.
To control nettles in grass, cut regularly when shoots appear in spring and repeat cuts each time the shoots reach 6-12 inches. Hand pulling nettles is also a good way of controlling these beneficial (but sometimes invasive) plants.
A great book by Piers Warren - ‘101 Uses for Stinging Nettles’
"V" is for Valerian – Centranthus rubber
Red valerian is a lovely long flowering cottage garden plant, originally from the Mediterranean, which now grows wild in many places, on walls and old buildings, on sea-cliffs and railway banks and on waste ground. The flowers are a source of nectar for bees and also many butterflies and moths, including the hummingbird hawk-moth.
Having a woody rootstock means that it has a slight ability to damage walls constructed of small bricks or stonework. This tendency should be considered against the conservation value and attractive appearance of the plant. Consider keeping it in places which are very visible and easily accessible for re-pointing.
"W" is for Walls & Woodpeckers
"W" is for Walls
Because of our mild, damp climate we have some of the finest wall vegetation in Europe.
Top Tips for getting the balance right with plants and stonewalls:
- Survey the wall plants growing on your churchyard boundary wall and church walls.
- Decide on the management objectives for the walls and write a plan – plants take a long time to develop so mistakes can set them back for many years.
- Only remove those species, which are likely to cause damage i.e. woody-stemmed plants such as shrub and tree saplings and ivy.
- Remove woody-stemmed plants except for those with high conservation or amenity value. Flowering ivy for example is a valuable plant for many species, especially insects filling up on nectar before hibernating and birds feeding on ivy berries in the winter. Consider this when deciding how much ivy to remove - control rather than removal may be a better option in some places - especially when the ivy is holding the wall together!
- Keep attractive, semi woody species (e.g. red valerian which has a slight ability to damage walls) in places, which are very visible and easily accessible for re-pointing.
"W" is for Woodpecker - Green Woodpecker
The largest of our three species of woodpecker (the others being the Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted) and one of our most colourful birds, easily recognised by its laughing “yaffle” call as it flies. They have a great love of yellow meadow ants, and will return day after day to a favourite anthill to feed. Another important reason to look after our old meadow grassland in churchyards.
"X" is for Xanthoria parietina
A foliose or leafy lichen with common names such as common orange lichen, yellow scale and maritime sunburst lichen. Look for fairly large, wrinkly, leafy and bright orange lichen with some small orange discs in the centre, although in shade it is greenish-grey.
With a wide distribution it’s found in sunny, exposed places such as rocky shores as well as inland walls and trees. Xanthoria parietina tolerates air pollution and places rich in nitrogen such as walls, or tree bark near farmyards, and stones with bird droppings such as occur in churchyards.
In the past it was used as a remedy for jaundice because of its yellow colour. It is known to have antiviral properties inhibiting the human parainfluenza virus.
Xanthorai elegans or elegant sunburst lichen is a much darker orange and lacks the wrinkly appearance. It has long lobes which stick closely to the stone surface and occurs on walls particularly those with concrete caps.
"Y" is for Yew Tree
Globally veteran and ancient yews are threatened.
In Europe yews were felled for English long bows (13th-16th century). From mediaeval times yews were removed from forests as they were slow growing and their fruits were toxic to animals. In modern times the huge demand for anti-cancer drugs (taxanes) from yew bark has destroyed vast numbers of yews.
However the world does have a significant refuge for these trees - English and Welsh churchyards. Here three quarters of Britain’s oldest yews are found.
So let’s take care of these special trees which are often older than the church, older than the oldest building in the parish and a living monument to the life of the community.
For more information on yews contact The Ancient Yew Group, www.ancient-yew.org and the Tree Register 01234 768884.
"Z" is for Zygaena trifolii
(Otherwise known as known as the five spot burnet moth). This striking black moth with red spots flies with a slow flight and visits a wide range of flowers. The caterpillars feed on Birds-foot Trefoil, often found in old grassland which occurs in many of our older burial grounds.
To find out more about moths and butterflies contact The Butterfly Conservation Trust, 01929 400209, www.butterfly-conservation.org
Caring for God's Acre, the conservation charity for churchyards and burial grounds, 01588 673041, www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk