Saturday 3rd to Sunday 12th June 2017 is National Cherishing Churchyards week.
Why are churchyards such special places? Because:
- They often contain a rich diversity of plant and animal life.
- They are important places for archaeology and history.
- They often have distinctive and veteran trees.
- The stonework and boundary walls provide homes for mosses, ferns and lichens.
- They provide a tranquil place for quiet reflection.
I recently visited the delightful church of St Michael Skelton, near Penrith, where one of the church wardens, Jim Mills, is keen to develop the churchyard as a sanctuary for wildlife, as well as a sacred space for remembering past members of the village community. A few years ago, he got a group of young people involved in a wildlife survey of the churchyard, and for a whole year, the grass was left uncut. Since then, mowing has restarted in the areas currently used for burials and along the approach to the church entrance, but one area of land to the south of the church has remained uncut. This is not in accordance with the usual advice for ‘wildlife friendly churchyards’, which is to cut the grass twice a year (summer and autumn) and remove the cuttings in order to avoid adding nutrients to the soil. But not cutting at all seems to have worked well at Skelton!
There’s often a lot of anxiety aroused, amongst church members and the wider community, if it is suggested that the churchyard grass be cut less often or not at all. People are afraid that the churchyard will quickly be overwhelmed by brambles, ragwort and other undesirable species. But that has not happened at St Michael’s. Instead what we saw was a delightful display of cranesbill, buttercups, ground elder and other wildflowers, together with graceful grasses whose seed heads were attracting feeding birds. For the future, some management would be beneficial, to discourage excessive grass growth, encourage further diversity of wildflowers, ensure no brambles, docks, thistles etc emerge, and remove any tree saplings that have self-seeded in gravestones. Mown strips along the edge of the footpaths, as already done at Skelton, help to create a sense of tidiness and care. And of course, the areas where current burials are taking place and where graves are frequently visited should be kept well cut.
It goes without saying that plastic flowers have no place in a country churchyard!
How well do you know your churchyard? What system of management is in place? How friendly is it to wildlife – flora and fauna?
Take some inspiration from Cherishing Churchyards Week – visit your churchyard and take a long, slow, walk, looking and listening for signs of wildlife flourishing in ‘God’s Acre’.