These February fairmaids awaken something within when we see them dance along riverbanks, under hedges and in woods and churchyards. Indeed, their link with purity, light and new life has encouraged their cultivation in God’s acre for centuries, and is why snowdrops feature in the Candlemas festival on 2 February, which celebrates the Virgin Mary’s purification.
As spring progresses, primroses, cowslips, winter aconites, lesser celandines and daffodils join in this celebration of life, bringing a warm, yellow glow to thousands of burial grounds. Nowhere else is the sense of spring triumphing over winter, light over dark and life over death more striking than in a graveyard at the beginning of the year – as surprising as that may seem.
The abundant flora in churchyards and cemeteries is, in part, explained by the cultivation of certain species such as snowdrop and primrose (the choice of memorial plant for children’s graves in Victorian times) and the naturalisation of plants found in church flower decorations. But, what about the many wild plants? To explain their proliferation we must look, says Francesca Greenoak, author of Wildlife in the Churchyard, to the origins of these sacred enclosures.
“A number of churchyards, particularly in the Middle Ages, were carved out of woods and forests and enclosed by a wall or hedgerow,” says Greenoak. Many others originate from flower-rich meadows. Over the centuries, the land outside the church boundary was ‘improved’ by the plough and artificial fertilisers or engulfed by concrete. But inside, the grasslands remained comparatively untouched, locked in an ecological time warp.
If you walk through a traditionally managed churchyard or cemetery later on in spring, you gain a sense of the botanical diversity that was once common in lowland Britain before modern farming practices destroyed more than 80 percent of our wildflower grasslands. Meadow saxifrage, pignut, bulbous buttercup, cuckoo flower and orchids flourish between graves. Even where no meadow ever existed or where churchyard grasslands have been transformed into manicured gardens, it is relatively easy to re-establish the assemblage of plants found in semi-natural grasslands. “Treat it like a meadow and it becomes a meadow,” says Greenoak.
Modern farming stripped much of the land of wild plants and fungi, but it also pushed out animals to field margins and into the sanctuary of the churchyard. Bats, swifts and barn owls often inhabit the towers and roofs of churches; stone memorials shelter toads, slow worms and lichens; while woody areas provide cover for badgers, hedgehogs and foxes. Veteran trees – a common sight in churchyards – are hugely important for many birds, bats and invertebrates. The multiplicity of habitats and virtual isolation from modernity makes for a very wildlife-friendly environment indeed.
The value of burial grounds (of which there are thought to be in excess of 10,000 in England and Wales) as refuges for wildlife has become more widely recognised in the past 30 years. A number of local groups now promote the sensitive and traditional management of habitats and raise awareness of the detrimental effect a manicured (or overgrown) churchyard can have on its wild inhabitants. Local Wildlife Trusts’ Living Churchyards projects and the charity Caring for God’s Acre (CfGA) have both been instrumental in this regard.
The Reverend Nigel Cooper, a biologist and Chaplin at Anglia Ruskin University, has been involved in churchyard conservation for more than 20 years and witnessed the movement’s shaky beginnings in the 1970s and 80s. “Churchyards used to be managed in a traditional way, but there was an increasing emphasis on tidiness after the Second World War,” he says. That changed with the environmental movement of the 1980s, which helped curb practices such as scrubbing headstones to remove lichens and too frequent grass cutting.
But conservation groups became disillusioned, recalls Cooper, when the grasslands they left to grow wild didn’t turn into flower meadows. “The promise didn’t deliver,” he says, largely because of lack of advice and resources. But things picked up again towards the turn of the century.
Sue Cooper, from CfGA, remembers the days before the charity was formed in 2000. “We were seen as rather odd. When we suggested allowing the grass to grow long it was as if we were asking churches to do something disrespectful.” Since then, the CfGA has grown to become a national charity and the idea of managing churchyards for wildlife, says Sue, has become “mainstream”.
Volunteer work parties adopt traditional management techniques such as grazing by livestock (once a frequent sight in churchyards) and infrequent mowing. They tolerate bats, keep scrub in check, put up bird boxes and leave tufts of grass around gravestones so as not to disturb amphibians and reptiles (and prevent stones from toppling). They try to strike a balance between a hand’s off approach and being overly tidy – neither of which benefits wildlife. Indeed, lack of management allows brambles, ivy and nettles to smother less delicate meadow flowers.
In recent years, a new pressure has emerged. A national shortage of burial grounds in the UK has resulted in burial plots being created by clearing wildflower verges and woody strips, and moving gravestones to perimeter walls. This may free up more space and make the cemetery easier to mow, but it also displaces wildlife and destroys centuries-old lichens, which die when their aspect is changed. Greenoak refers to this as “the industrialisation of cemeteries”. In one cemetery in Tring, Hertfordshire, she remembers gravestones being broken up and piled in a heap, ready for use as rubble in a new car park (though outraged locals rescued them before that could happen).
Despite the pressure on space, the persistence of those who wish to over-tidy, closure of burial grounds and problems associated with neglect, these unsung, unscheduled nature reserves are still some of the most biodiverse environments in the UK. For people, cemeteries and churchyards are places of reflection, celebration and coming together. They are neither bleak nor morbid – even in winter.
Next time you pass a churchyard, step through the gates and see for yourself. Take your binoculars and field guide or just sit and enjoy the birdsong, count stone lichens or admire the wildflowers. Religious or not, treat it with respect and if you can spare the time, join a local conservation group and do your bit for the wildlife in God’s acre.