Grazing A Churchyard With Sheep
St Margaret’s of Antioch, Corsley, Wiltshire
We wanted to continue with the historical management; this churchyard had been grazed with Wiltshire sheep for centuries. Grazing then stopped after a local farmer retired and we had a short period of mowing. Claire lives next door to the church and was able to offer her sheep to reinstate grazing and at the same time save the money that was being spent on mowing.
We constructed two separate sheep enclosures, one on either side of the path to the church door. Sheep were kept over 1m away from both the church entrances and the path. The fencing is normal sheep netting but with no wire at the top.
Keeping the sheep fence well back from the path allows the churchyard to continue to feel welcoming to visitors
The sheep are in for most of the summer and autumn and then removed from the start of December until March or April. This allows spring bulbs such as snowdrop and after that daffodils, including wild daffodils, to flower.
The sheep tend to be in an enclosure for 5 to 7 days, they are then moved across to the other enclosure, then back to their field. As Claire farms next to the church she can walk the sheep on and off site. Clare simply puts them in if the grass is starting to look a bit long, so can take into account wet or dry weather and subsequent grass growth. She has a flock of 17 sheep of mixed breeds but mainly Hebrideans and Suffolk crosses.
Costs and Income
Prior to starting the grazing the churchyard was mown by council contractors at a cost to the church. The sheep are free and the posts and wire were donated.
Results and Benefits
The grazed site looks traditional and is very sustainable. There is a primary school in the village and the children love to see the sheep. The Vicar and parishioners have asked that the sheep are in the churchyard for Rogation Sunday for blessing. So far there have been no complaints.
As the sheep are only in each enclosure for a few days, with lots of grass to eat, they have not tried to escape apart from one sheep on one occasion. With no top wire they could jump out but do not, partly because they are used to the routine.
Issues and Lessons Learnt
Whilst there have been no complaints there was one lamb ‘stolen’ but it was then brought back, perhaps because both lamb and yew were very noisy once separated!
When the sheep were first put in, the trees (all of which are mature) were not protected and the sheep removed too much bark from one mature holly which then died (Hebridean sheep are particularly prone to stripping bark and browsing). Following this, wire has been wrapped around tree trunks as needed.
Interestingly the area of grass grazed by sheep is not particularly flowery, in fact the areas adjacent to the path which are mowed and the grass cuttings removed have more wild flowers. If more flowers were wanted, then the sheep would need to be kept off site for longer (about 12 weeks of growing season) in order for more plants to flower and set seed. The resulting grass might be too long for the sheep to graze, necessitating one cut with scythe of strimmer followed by raking. The sheep could then graze for the rest of the year.
Conclusions and Next Steps
This system works well and the plan is to keep going with no changes. Continuing care and inspection of the trees is needed with regular checks of the protective wire. Monument safety also needs regular checks. There are some clumps of nettles in the churchyard which have possibly increased in area as the sheep lie-up here. This needs checking and the nettles are being controlled by cutting regularly to stop further spread.
Caring for God’s Acre Action Pack Sheets
Section A sheet 2 Caring for Grassland
Section A sheet 3 Cutting Long Grass and Dealing with Grass Cuttings
Section A sheet 4 Inspecting and Caring for Trees
Grazing Animals Project www.grazinganimalsproject.org.uk