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BylineMaryGreen

Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

God’s acre

Posted on February 16 2011 at 3:13:33 0 comments

Ivy grows around a gravestone

Mary Green discovers some unusual wildlife in a local churchyard.

What a winter we have had! After the coldest December ever, in which fish died in the closed-off dead arm of the canal, we had a mild wet spell in January, then classic winter weather, cold but not too cold.

Snowdrops did appear in places in January, but the main drifts weren’t there until the second week in February, a little late for St Brigid’s Day on February 1. There are still only the tiniest of buds on blackthorn, but I’ve seen coltsfoot in flower. Ducks have been mating, woodpeckers are drumming and I heard my first chaffinches singing their full song on February 8, so it seems the birds are on track.

Candlemas Day (February 2) was cloudy with rain, so according to the old saying, “winter has gone and will not come again.” Let’s hope so.

This month I am looking at a special wildlife habitat: the churchyard. I was invited to look at the wildlife of St Laurence’s churchyard in Alvechurch, and make some recommendations about how to make it more wildlife-friendly. I must say it was fascinating, and I hope you find it so too. At the time of writing the churchyard is a drift of snowdrops, many from last year’s planting.

Churchyards have traditionally been green places, sanctuaries; but in recent times many have become rather like suburban lawns, all neat weedkilled grass and little wildlife. The desire for neatness is always inimical to wildlife.

However, there is a movement nationally to restore them to being more bio-diverse. In some places, churchyards are mini-wildflower meadows – I have seen these as far apart as Durham and the Isle of Wight. Some are wonderful terraced gardens, like one at St Just in Roseland in Cornwall. Our own beautiful Cofton church has swathes of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils in spring, among grand old native trees.

Of course, churchyards are also graveyards, and as such are places of respect and love. To me, though, filling them with wildlife is a better celebration of loved ones than mere tidiness.
St Laurence, one of the largest churchyards around, looks at first glance to be a little short on wildlife. There’s more to it than meets the eye, though. It has quite a range of habitats.

If you just walk along the main path, or in the new part, you will mostly see close-mown grass. But over to the left of the main gate is a sloping area of old graves, with longer grass. There are treed areas, especially round the edges, and round the back of the church a slightly wilder area with less closely mown grass, and shrubs around old graves. Even on the close-mown parts, the edges of the graves and paths provide a place for other plants to grow.

First of all, there are lovely trees. The churchyard has a good range of native trees, as well as the non-native evergreens commonly planted in churchyards. Among the native trees there are several yews, including one beauty which is probably 500 years old. The other native evergreen is holly, which does well and produces excellent berries.

There are the big three native deciduous trees – oak, ash and beech. There is a good specimen of lime tree near the church – a favourite tree of the Victorians. Round the churchyard are also apple, cherry, cherry-plum, elder, hawthorn, horse chestnut and field maple. There are several remnants of elm trees, which produce small sucker-grown trees that do not flower and fruit.

This good range of trees means that the edges of the churchyard have woodland flora. It also means there are birds. I have seen flocks of redwings stripping the yews and holly of their berries, and there are always woodpigeons, blackbirds and smaller birds like tits in the trees.

Some of the trees have interesting associations, such as hawthorn with its pagan and early Christian heritage, apple which is associated with both Eve and the old Celtic goddess, rowan which was planted to ward off evil spirits, and elder which is traditionally Judas’s tree.

Spring is a very good time to look at the churchyard. When I started the survey last spring I saw the following native plants flowering or having flowered: snowdrop, primrose, celandine, bluebell, dog’s mercury, lady’s smock, daisy, dock, lesser stitchwort, ribwort plantain, sedge, small speedwell, common sorrel, cow parsley, wood avens, goldilocks buttercup, meadow buttercup, forget-me-not and dandelion.

This represents a mixture of woodland plants, hedgerow species, marsh plants and meadow plants. For example, bulbs such as snowdrop and bluebell, and primroses, grow and flower in woodland before the canopy closes over, and dog’s mercury is a sign of ancient tree cover.

Cow parsley, dock, dandelion and wood avens grow in rough pasture, hedges and verges. Sorrel, goldilocks, lesser stitchwort and meadow buttercups are real meadow flowers, while daisies and small speedwell like mown grass, though not too closely mown. Lady’s smock and sedge grow in the wetter parts of the ground. A surprising variety in a small space! 

There are large parts of the churchyard which are just closely-mown grass, and these have little wildlife. The flowers listed above were in marginal places: under the trees, behind the church, around the edges of graves, along the sides of paths, and in the rather more wild areas of graves on the left of the entrance gates.

When I revisited later in May, the early summer flowers had come. Many of the spring ones were still there, but I also saw: pignut, alkanet, germander speedwell, round-leaved cranesbill, dove’s-foot cranesbill, herb-Robert, cat’s ear, medick, ground elder (a huge, beautiful patch), bistort, bush vetch and creeping buttercup.

Some of these were very interesting. The open mown areas had not been very recently mowed. Here I found lots of pignut, an old meadow flower with an edible root. The sorrel (also edible) and lesser stitchwort had grown really strong and tall in places – all of these meadow and pastureland flowers.

Some of the plants were flowering on graves: the cranesbills, medick, speedwell and herb-Robert especially like these “rocky” patches. The large bistort is quite an unusual plant round here, and was growing in big patches in the sloping long-grass patch, along with plentiful bush vetch. The areas immediately around the graves, as well as the edges of the churchyard, had plants like alkanet and cat’s ear.

  In June, I saw more summer plants in flower. These were: little willow herb, bird’s foot trefoil, red clover, fox-and-cubs, bramble, yellow vetchling, foxglove, and lots of elder-flower.
Many of these are hedgerow plants, but fox-and-cubs, clover and bird’s foot trefoil are meadow/pasture plants. They were mostly growing round and on the graves and hedges. The open areas were closely mown by now, and there wasn’t much flowering on them. Not much was flowering under the trees now either, as the leaves had shut out the light.

I visited again in July and saw a few additional plants. By this time the sloping patch had been mowed and its flowers gone. However, I saw self-heal, cinquefoil, hawkweed, rayless mayweed, white clover and knotgrass, and one poppy! Mayweed, poppy and knotgrass grow in arable fields and farm gateways, and were here on the path edges. An interesting area was at the back of the church where the grass had been mowed, but not so closely or frequently. This had cinquefoil and a lot of self-heal and daisies growing on it.

In the autumn, the trees are beautiful, and their leaves help to feed the ground. Under the trees I found several fungi, including the lovely little amethyst deceiver, an edible mushroom. In winter the trees are full of berries to feed the birds – even the ivy which has to be cut back a bit to help the trees.

Many of the flowers that grow in churchyards are those that had herbal uses, for medicines, ointments, teas and just for eating. There are many references in older literature to people gathering “simples” or herbs in churchyards, and their growing in “God’s acre” meant they were extra powerful.

In St Laurence’s were self-heal, herb Robert, wood avens and medick as medicinal herbs; bistort, sorrel, pignut, dandelion and ground-elder to eat; elder flower and lime for teas; hawthorn, bramble, elder and cherries with fruits.

I have concentrated on the trees and flowering plants, as they are the key to insect life and bird life. I heard blackbirds, greenfinches, chaffinches and chiffchaffs on my visits, and saw rooks, woodpigeons and blackbirds, then later swifts flying around the church. One of my friends found an injured green woodpecker there. It was in St Laurence churchyard I heard that first chaffinch this year!

So, what conclusions can we draw about wildlife in this churchyard? First of all, the churchyard group can encourage what they already have. The trees should be cherished and managed. The edges of the graves should be left to grow whatever flowers come – not just for biodiversity, but to help keep the stones upright.

People might be encouraged to let native flowers and shrubs, or old cottage garden ones, grow on the graves of their loved ones, to attract butterflies and birds. I would love to have lavender and wild roses on mine! The sloping areas could be left growing long grass and whatever flowers come, with just an annual mowing.

I suggested to the churchyard group that they might want to consider adding to the woodland flora under the trees by planting more native bulbs and maybe other old woodland flowers such as the beautiful yellow archangel. They might choose an area of open sunny ground and plant it with meadow flowers – poppy, cornflower, knapweed, yellow rattle, moon daisies and others. Such flowers would eventually come anyway, but a little encouragement helps!

They could also mow some areas but not closely, so that smaller common flowers grew. If they want to continue having closely-mown areas in the main central part of the churchyard, they can continue to plant early bulbs like snowdrops, but also crocuses, native daffodils, fritillaries and aconites, which would flower before the mowing starts in earnest.

All the unmown areas need to be mown once a year, in the autumn after the flowers have finished, and they may need to have the more thuggish plants like dock and thistle taken out. In earlier times it was usual to let sheep or cattle graze larger churchyards in the winter to do this, but this may not be acceptable these days! The leaves from the trees can be left to form mulch, in the absence of animal manures.

Already, a small section under the trees has been planted with native bulbs, which have just started to flower, and a wildflower meadow patch is planned for this year.

St Laurence Church has recently gained funding for 50 new trees, all native varieties. Most of them have just been planted. There is a line of cherry, rowan and birch along the border with The Lawns. There is a group of oak and ash, the bigger trees, in the newer part of the churchyard. Planting trees is always an act of faith in the future, as those who plant them generally don’t live to see them at their height. It’s good to think of the people who planted the yew 500 years ago!

If you have a spare few minutes, walk through your local churchyard and see what is there. In a good one, there is a sense of the continuity of nature to match the continuity of culture and community that parish churches carry with them. If you want to find out more, there is a good book called Wildlife in the Churchyard by Francesca Greenoak (us wild-life writers all have suitable names!), which includes advice about how to manage churchyards for wildlife.

I wrote this poem a long time ago, when I was living in London, but I still feel like this every spring!

Making spring

The world a black and white photograph
What could I do?
Turn up the heating, they said, cover yourself.
I opened the window.
A blackbird came and oh he came like dew.
Next day the snow dripped. I opened my door
The picture dissolved in small rain.
I drive through sepia fields
The song follows.
Now I open everything: crocuses, eyes, clouds.
The sun comes, colour of blackbird’s beak
Opening the earth
The heart.
The price of daffodils drops.
Look now: I’m painting the fields green.


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