Churchyards are often seen as being creepy places but in reality they are peaceful havens for both people and wildlife. Most have been protected from development and chemicals. As a result, they can harbour communities of animals and plants that may have been lost from the surrounding areas.
Churchyards can provide a home to tree species such as yew and oak, which act as shelter and nesting sites for many creatures including birds, bats and insects. The church itself can provide accommodation for bats, swallows and house martins, even peregrine falcons, and hibernation places for bats and insects in the winter.
Urban areas often lack space for wildlife and a churchyard can be an important ‘green’ island. Maintenance regimes can be changed to make churchyards more wildlife friendly and maybe even less demanding on the gardener!
Some general principles
Where possible, dead wood on trees should be retained for insects and birds such as nuthatches and woodpeckers. Only remove branches that are considered dangerous, for instance where they are overhanging paths (see Woodlands for more information).
In many churchyards, grass is the predominant ground cover. If it is left uncut until June to August it can be managed as a wild flower meadow (see Grasslands) with paths cut through it to provide an attractive display of wild flowers. This longer grass allows cover for small mammals and insects such as grasshoppers and butterflies to thrive and these in turn attract predators such as owls, kestrels and foxes.
The tombstones and church walls often provide excellent surfaces for lichens to grow on and the different greys, greens and yellows give a sense of age to the churchyard and a feeling of warmth to the stones. It is really important not to clean tombstones as the lichens can take many years to grow.
Flower beds and borders can be planted with species that flower and provide nectar for butterflies and bees and seeds for birds to feed on later in the year. Areas of brambles, honeysuckle and scrub may look untidy but are essential for providing food for many creatures and a small nettle patch can provide the food source for the caterpillars of some butterflies such as small tortoiseshell.
Stone or stone-faced walls also provide good habitats for many insects, small mammals and small birds to live in. Hedges should be managed in a sympathetic way to leave fruits and seeds into the autumn and winter and cover for nesting birds in the spring and summer.
Suggestions for community activities
- Do not clean off gravestones, allow lichens to grow
- Encourage wildlife by leaving wild areas
- If you want a formal garden area, plant colourful nectar-rich flower beds for insects
- Erect nestboxes in trees
- Don’t mow the grass in some areas until late summer to allow wild flowers to grow and set seed
- Find out if there are bats in the church and seek advice on enhancing the building for bats.
The management of a churchyard needs to maintain the access to the church and the tombstones and have safety in mind at all times as it can be a very public area.