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Natural History in Churchyards – a guest blog by Steve Woodward

10th September 2018

NATURAL HISTORY IN CHURCHYARDS

Steve Woodward

Churchyards are well worth exploring for their flora and fauna. Helen Ikin and myself have confirmed this on our many visits to local churchyards over the last few years. They are (usually) pleasant places to wander slowly, looking for wild flowers among the headstones, trying to identify the planted trees, examining the lichens and mosses on the walls and watching mining bees at their excavated nests. Inside the church itself one can often find evidence of more creatures: birds (e.g. Swallow nests in the porch), butterflies at the windows (or dead on the window-sills), bats (droppings) and occasionally Death Watch Beetles (appeals for restoration funds)!

Although it was the prospect of bees that first drew us into churchyards, other aspects of churchyard wildlife have distracted us, especially the flowering plants. The reason is that the Atlas 2020 project (mentioned in previous Heritage editions) requires records of flowering plants across the counties, and churchyards, being fairly evenly dispersed and easily accessible, seemed suitable places to look. Common and widespread species of grassland, woodland, disturbed ground and rock surfaces can be expected in a churchyard, but we have turned up a few surprises and even first county records.

Long Whatton church (All Saints) produced a good list of 72 vascular plant species our visit on 22 April, including Goldilocks Buttercup and Hoary Plantain. © Steve Woodward
Long Whatton church (All Saints) produced a good list of 72 vascular plant species our visit on 22 April, including Goldilocks Buttercup and Hoary Plantain. © Steve Woodward

All our records have been submitted to the Leicestershire & Rutland Environmental Records Centre, LRERC. If, during a visit, we meet someone connected with the church, we always offer to send our results to the vicar or churchwardens. In 2013 we determined to visit all the churchyards in Leicestershire and Rutland and we now have in excess of 27,000 records from 349 sites (including a few cemeteries). Although we have been to virtually all churchyards, many visits were not in the flowering season, so it will be some while before we are satisfied with our coverage. In the meantime, here are a few highlights.

Meadow Saxifrage at Glenfield (St. Peter), 4 May. © Steve Woodward
Meadow Saxifrage at Glenfield (St. Peter), 4 May. © Steve Woodward

We had visited Glenfield (St. Peter) a couple of times, but a spring-time visit in 2018 added some special flowers, namely Goldilocks Buttercup Ranunculus auricomus and Meadow Saxifrage Saxifraga granulata. Neither is common. This is the only churchyard where we have found both – better still, the churchyard occupies two tetrads (recording grid squares) so each species will generate two dots on the map! Finding these and many other plants requires a sympathetic mowing regime – other churchyards may well harbour interesting plants but are mown too frequently for them to flower.

The two plants mentioned in the previous paragraph are quite likely “native” and genuinely wild here (although introduction cannot be ruled out, of course). Many plant species in churchyards are certainly introduced, but they sometimes become naturalised and spread without assistance. One such plant is Bird-in-a-bush Corydalis solida. The pink flowers of this herbaceous plant really do look like birds, all facing the middle of the bush. It can be found at Rotherby churchyard (All Saints) but it has spread to nearby gardens (or the other way round?) and qualifies as “wild” in the Atlas 2020 survey.

Bird-in-a-bush is an attractive garden plant, but seems to have gone rampant at Rotherby (All Saints). © Steve Woodward
Bird-in-a-bush is an attractive garden plant, but seems to have gone rampant at Rotherby (All Saints). © Steve Woodward

Churchyards abound in “rock” surfaces (including bricks, mortar and concrete) – not only the church itself, but the boundary wall and the headstones too. They become colonised by lichens of various growth forms – powdery, scaly or bushy. These light-demanding organisms generally grow very slowly, so lichen communities may still be developing after hundreds of years. Churchyards provide suitable substrates that are likely to be undisturbed and free from shading for a long time, so they are important sites for lichen conservation. We can admire the variety of colours and textures that adorn walls and headstones, but naming lichens really requires a specialist. Happily, we know one – so we took Ivan Pedley along to the churchyard at Coleorton (St. John). Ivan found 52 species, mostly on the boundary wall, with more on the church, the headstones and a few on the trees. Ivan has studied most of the local churchyards, so he was able to declare that St. John’s is one of the richest churchyards for lichens in west Leicestershire.

A bird that is supposed to frequent churchyards, according to some books (e.g. Greenoak & Roberts, 1985), is the Spotted Flycatcher. Perhaps we have not been paying due attention to birds, but it was not until 2018 that we actually found one in a churchyard, at Medbourne (St. Giles) on 22 June. It was perching on headstones, dashing out to intercept a fly, then returning to its perch. This is a species that has declined considerably over recent decades (Fray, et al. 2009), so perhaps it really is scarce in churchyards now. On the other hand, the Peregrine Falcon is doing well and in 2017 we photographed a bird on Bottesford church (St. Mary), where a nest was monitored by CCTV. Following a tip-off from Jack Perks at his talk last winter, we “trespassed” into Derbyshire in January to see Hawfinches in a churchyard. To be strictly accurate, we were in the churchyard (Darley Dale, St. Helens) and the birds were just outside it, but close enough to attempt a photograph.

One of the pioneers of Leicestershire botany was Andrew Bloxam (1801-1878), who was Rector of Twycross. During our visit to Twycross (St. James) on 20 June 2018, we wondered how many of the plants we found would have been there in Bloxam’s era. The flora of this churchyard was a little unusual, having a number of species associated with acid or heathy soils, namely Heath Bedstraw Galium saxatile, Sheep’s Sorrel Rumex acetosella, Creeping Soft-grass Holcus mollis, the moss Dicranum scoparium and – unique for a Leics churchyard as far as we know – Wavy Hair-grass Deschampsia flexuosa. Perhaps a thin sandy layer in the soil at Twycross gave the area a heathy kind of vegetation – now destroyed by ploughing except in the sanctuary of the churchyard.

Walls may appear to lack animal life, but there are always creatures to be found if one looks hard enough. The Bristly Millipede Polyxenus lagurus, being only 2-3 mm long is easily missed but not uncommon. We have reported on its distribution elsewhere (Ikin & Woodward, 2014) and speculated that it feeds on micro-fungi or algae on the wall’s surface.

Mites are tiny arachnids, related to spiders. We have seen them, sometimes in astronomic numbers, on church walls. Since attending a Mite identification course this year, we are starting to work out what they are. The red velvet mites are the most conspicuous, running around on sunlit wall-tops. We are intrigued by this behaviour – why do they do it? There are probably several species involved (including members of the family Trombidiidae) – but they cannot be identified in the field and the specimens are still to be examined. Globular, black, slow-moving Oribatid mites can also be abundant under loose bits of masonry – some from Thornton (St. Peter) and Whetstone (St. Peter) were identified and confirmed as Phauloppia lucorum. Probably a first county record (as no-one seems to have studied mites).

Medetera fly with its characteristic stance on Higham on the Hill (St. Peter) church. © Steve Woodward
Medetera fly with its characteristic stance on Higham on the Hill (St. Peter) church. © Steve Woodward

Tiny flies (Diptera) are common on walls, especially long-legged flies that rest on vertical surfaces, facing upwards, and run (rather than fly away) when disturbed. I believe they belong to the genus Medetera in the family Dolichopodidae (to be confirmed). They have strange mouthparts (like a horse’s nose-bag) and predate smaller invertebrates (d’Assis Fonseca, 1978).

Spiders are all predators, and many of those make a living on church walls. We have not studied them, but spider-hunting wasps (Pompilidae) are within the scope of another of our projects (Aculeates) so we can identify them. On several occasions, such as Osgathorpe (St. Mary) on 31 May 2018, we have witnessed a Pompilid (usually Dipogon sp.) carrying a paralysed spider to store in a burrow for its larvae. One cannot but admire these wasps for their audacity to tackle venomous spiders bigger than themselves, and for their strength and stamina to haul them up a vertical wall.

We made a first county record of the solitary bee Hylaeus signatus in a Leicester churchyard, All Saints in 2016. The church itself is no longer in regular use but the churchyard is partly gardened and partly left to accumulate a wide range of urban weeds. It seems good for nectaring insects. An urban churchyard is entirely appropriate for Hylaeus signatus, as it forages pollen from Wild Mignonette and Weld, flowers which are not uncommon on brownfield sites (Falk & Lewington, 2015). The bee is widespread, but thinly – it is designated as Nationally Scarce Nb.

A spider-hunting wasp Dipogon, looking for a suitable nest site on the wall of Osgathorpe (St. Mary) church, where it will park the spider then prepare the nest before dragging in its prey. She will then lay her egg on the spider and seal the nest. © Steve Woodward
A spider-hunting wasp Dipogon, looking for a suitable nest site on the wall of Osgathorpe (St. Mary) church, where it will park the spider then prepare the nest before dragging in its prey. She will then lay her egg on the spider and seal the nest. © Steve Woodward

 

Our churchyard survey follows no “protocol” and we are a little hazy about its objectives – the truth is we do it for enjoyment. Eventually we intend to produce some kind of report, but not before we finish off our other projects!

 


References

d’Assis Fonseca, 1978. Diptera Orthorrhapha Brachycera Dolichopodidae. Handbooks for the Identification of British Insects. IX, 5. R.E.S.

Falk, S. & Lewington, R. 2015. Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland. Bloomsbury.

Fray, R., Davis, R., Gamble, D., Harrop, A. & Lister, S. 2009. The Birds of Leicestershire and Rutland. Helm.

Ikin, H. & Woodward, S. 2014. The Ecclesiastical Millipede. LES Newsletter 51. pp. 1-3.

 


Editorial Panel: Helen Ikin, Steve Woodward, Jim Graham. Hon. Secretary. Sue Graham, 5 Lychgate Close, Cropston, Leics. LE7 7HU. Tel: 0116-2366474

This article orginally appeared in ‘heritage’ – Quarterly Bulletin of the Loughborough Naturalists’ Club. Their website can be reached here: http://www.loughboroughnats.org/