Birds in Burial Grounds Part 2: How to improve burial grounds for birds25th January 2019
Guest blog by John Arnfield – Chair, Shropshire Ornithological Society
If you have a list of birds seen in your burial ground we would love to hear from you – contact firstname.lastname@example.org or pop to our ‘Share your records’ page.
In the previous blog post (Part 1 here) I highlighted the potential burial grounds have for nurturing some of our more threatened bird species while supporting healthy populations of familiar species. However, to preserve this function, burial grounds need to be cared for and enhanced. Wherever possible, mature and veteran trees, with their cavities, crevices and dead wood, should be preserved and new planting should favour native species, a mix of deciduous and coniferous species and the provision of food sources for birds. The timing of heavy pruning of shrubs and hedgerows ideally should be staggered to maintain an adequate cover for nesting and shelter, and to preserve fruit crops. Hedges should not be trimmed every year and ivy should be retained on trees (except yew), on stonework and on the ground.
Thick, thorny shrubs are particularly valuable as protected nest sites, so hawthorn, Berberis and Pyracantha are good choices for new plantings. Think about the full range of nesting sites when maintaining graveyards – retain large trees for Rooks and Stock Doves, shrubs and small trees for finches, shrubby vegetation and brambles for Blackbird, Robin and Blackcap, and even nettles for Whitethroat (butterflies like nettles too!). Place trees in groups or alongside a wall rather than as ‘stand-alone’ specimens. Any hedge is better than none but those that are pleached and composed of native species like hawthorn, blackthorn, holly, yew, viburnam, elder, spindle and dog rose will provide good nest sites, shelter from winter cold, and food.
Photo by NE Wildlife
Repair work to buildings and other stonework should be timed to avoid periods when nesting birds are present. If work is done outside the nesting season, avoid blocking access to a church tower or roof by desirable species (Barn Owl, Swifts, House Sparrows, Starlings). If preventing access to known nest sites is inevitable, alternatives (e.g. nest boxes) should be provided as close as feasible to those lost.
Providing bird feeders in burial grounds in probably not possible due to issues of theft, vandalism, stocking and hygiene but that does not mean that measures cannot be taken to enhance the food available. Encourage a healthy insect population and you have created ‘free range bird food’. Create insect-friendly habitats such as habitat piles, ‘insect hotels’ and the like. Delay grass cutting until May, leave leaf litter clean up until spring and use natural footpath surfaces such as bark or stones. Meadows, ponds, mossy roofs and ‘messy’ areas all encourage insect life. Minimise the removal of moss and lichen from headstones and walls and avoid removing anthills. (Ants are a major food source for the Amber-Listed Green Woodpecker.) And, naturally, avoid the use of insecticides!
Try to maintain 1-2 m wide uncut grassland strips adjacent to hedges and walls (and, maybe, in areas of memorials). These will provide flowers and nectar (which in turn will support invertebrates which are food for tits, Pied Wagtail, Wren, flycatchers), seeds (for finches) and cover for small mammals (to encourage Barn Owl and Kestrel). Short grass areas will provide earthworms, ants, flies, leatherjackets, moths and much more for ground-feeding insectivorous birds. Delay dead-heading any flowers and fruiting bodies as long as possible, even until the spring. Not only do such structures provide seeds but they also shelter invertebrates over the winter season – yet more food for insect-eating birds. And, of course, avoid using herbicides.
Photo by NE Wildlife
Sustenance for seed and fruit-eating birds can be enhanced by planting trees and shrubs that have berries, fruits, hips and haws with overlapping fruiting seasons. Generally, black, purple and red fruits are preferred by birds to lighter-fruited varieties. There is a huge variety of suitable fruit-bearing plants – check out the RSPB and BTO websites for specific recommendations.
Water is very important for birds, both for drinking (especially in very hot or freezing conditions) but also for bathing to maintain their feathers in tip-top condition, both for flight and for effective insulation. Wildlife ponds may not be practical in many churchyards, but bird baths are good alternatives. It might be possible to hook one up to a downspout from a church roof to avoid the need for a volunteer to keep in topped up.
Generally, installing nest boxes gives rise to fewer problems than setting up feeders. Once mounted, they require little maintenance except for an annual clean. They can usually be discreetly mounted on trees and in climbing vegetation, but it is important to select the correct design to encourage the species desired. A selection of different types will encourage a good mix of birds in your site and will also minimize competition between individuals of the same species. Hole-fronted nest boxes with a 32 mm hole will encourage Great Tits and Nuthatches but similar boxes with a 25 mm hole are good for Coal and Blue Tits. House Sparrows are communal nesters and favour boxes with multiple chambers – an avian ‘apartment block’. Open-fronted boxes are good for Robins, Pied Wagtails and Wrens. Swifts, Swallows and House Martins require specialized boxes and it would be a good idea to seek advice on the type and location for this type of nesting chamber. However, all three species are prevalent in churchyards and all are birds of conservation concern, so I encourage you to explore this option. Some nesting birds can be a bit messy and you may be reluctant to encourage nesting in a burial ground with lots of human footfall. For example, Swallows and Spotted Flycatchers may nest in church porches and lych-gates. Try installing a shelf below the nest (before the birds arrive in spring) to avoid the young soiling the path below.
Photo by Eric Kaiser
Remember the ecological fundamental that ‘everything is connected to everything else’. What benefits birds generally also benefits, trees, lichens, ferns, fungi, small mammals, bees, beetles, butterflies, flowering pants and all of Nature. Not all churchyards and burial grounds can be managed to provide optimal habitat for birds all the time, but I urge you to do what you can!