Churchyards and wildlife
This page offers advice and information with reflections to assist PCCs and churchyard managers when maintaining and considering proposed works in churchyards, and for church members and visitors, enjoying their churchyard. Advice is also offered on wildlife which may affect the church building itself.
See also Care for Creation and Wildlife, ecology and biodiversity.
Background and Introduction
Canon Law F13/2 states that “The churchyard is to be kept in such an orderly and decent manner as becomes consecrated ground”. The Churchyards Handbook adds “the churchyard belongs to the whole community represented by the parish, and not simply to the small group of parishioners who worship regularly in the Church.”
The primary purpose of every church site is as the community’s centre of Christian life and worship. The church itself is built to glorify God and in which to worship Him. The churchyard was created to provide a permanent resting place for members of the Christian community as close as possible to the place of worship. The building and churchyard and their tombs, both within and outside the building, should be cared for with this in mind.
At the same time, Christian belief is that the non-human world has value because it is valued by its creator, God. Plants and animals deserve our care too. Managing the churchyard is thus not only a ministry to the human users but also to the species and creatures living there.
As expressed by ‘The living churchyard project’ in the 1980s, this gives rise to further objectives “to enhance wildlife and its habitat, and burial grounds through conservation management; to create an atmosphere of benefit to grieving visitors; to encourage educational used of churchyards and burial grounds; to aid the understanding of our natural and cultural heritage and its importance in God’s creation; and to enhance the amenity value of churchyards and burial grounds.”
There is thus a growing awareness of the value of churchyards as both representative habitats and as potential refuges for threatened species. Churchyards form a patchwork of sites making it more likely that threatened species may be able to disperse and take refuge from one site to another. Additionally, because of their value as amenities for enjoyment by the public, they are important in educating the public about conservation.
Balancing ecological issues with the care of fabric
The churchyard of a parish church is subject to the jurisdiction of the Bishop. The legal ownership is usually vested in the Incumbent for the time being (i.e. the Rector or Vicar), or the Bishop where there is a priest-in-charge rather than an incumbent. The responsibility for maintaining the churchyard belongs to the PCC, unless the churchyard is “closed” to new burials, and responsibility for maintenance has been passed to the Local Authority. If in doubt, contact the Diocesan Advisory Committee.
Responsibility for tombs remains with the families by whom they were erected. But what if they cannot be traced? The PCC as occupier may still be liable if injury is caused by an unsafe tombstone, and for maintaining fences and walls. A duty of care may be owed to persons passing through the churchyard, even those who may not be supposed to be in the churchyard at all, such as merrymakers using it as a short cut at night.
Whilst the use and development of the churchyard as a place of nature conservation is to be encouraged, the PCC’s duty to maintain it to the required standard must not be forgotten. The degree to which wildlife should be encouraged without prejudice to any physical structure depends on the character of each churchyard. A balance is needed, and priorities need to be established. For example, although plant growth may be permitted on robust materials of lesser historic value, it may need to be strongly discouraged on fragile materials of great historic or architectural importance.
In many circumstances, lichens or algae or some varieties of small plants may enhance the appearance of stonework and have no ill effect. In other circumstances, for reasons of maintenance or appearance, the growth will need to be removed. Examples are algal slimes on vertical surfaces, or especially on paving, and certain acid-secreting lichens which can cause the deterioration of building materials such as copper, zinc or lead sheet, marble, limestone and glass. Priority will be given to the protection of fabric for reasons of safety, fitness for purpose or architectural or historic significance.
The Quinquennial Inspection
The Quinquennial Inspection Scheme was established in accordance with the Inspection of Churches Measure 1955. It provides for five-yearly inspections of the fabric, fittings and services of churches and churchyards, by an approved architect or surveyor. See Quinquennial Inspections.
The purpose of the report is to serve as a general survey and condition report, with general recommendations upon works required. It should identify any significant threat to the integrity of the fabric, and to the premises as a capital and a heritage asset, as well as for purposes of beneficial use.
In particular, it should warn of any apparent hazard to health and safety. It should also identify any such parts which may impact the condition of the principal building – for example retaining walls, ledger slabs, kerbs and edgings, diseased or unstable trees and tree roots which may affect foundations, collapsing tombs, loose gravestones.”
Also required is a list of trees on the site: at least in the first report by a Quinquennial Inspector and in subsequent reports if there has been any change. The list should note any which are subject to tree preservation orders, where this can be ascertained. Any other fauna and flora should also be highlighted, where these may affect the condition of the building or churchyard.
The findings of a quinquennial report need to be taken seriously if any wildlife is found to be having a detrimental effect on the building’s structure. The report may for instance recommend the removal of plants growing from the brickwork of a boundary wall prior to its repointing. Bird droppings building up around the base of walls can encourage the growth of elder and mallow. Both birds and plants may have to be controlled. Generally woody plants in particular may need to be removed in order to reduce damage to masonry, and the report should make reference to this where appropriate.
Risks and benefits from wildlife
Due weight needs to be given to the conservation of the natural heritage alongside other considerations whenever circumstances permit.
In general, some plants can be tolerated to some degree. Lichens may not cause damage, and may not need to be removed from external stonework and mortar. Ferns and soft-rooted herbs can be allowed on less important walls. Such small plants support an enormous amount of microscopic animal life.
Invasive species need to be controlled. The threat from Japanese knotweed is well known and requires specialist advice and intervention to eradicate it. Buddleia davidii also needs rigorous control.
Ivy may be of value to wildlife in that it can provide winter food and shelter. However it can cause great damage to historic table tombs, to the church building, churchyard walls and other structures. If it is allowed to cover the ground it may impact the variety of wild flowers and other flora. The hazards of allowing ivy to grow unchecked therefore may outweigh any ecological advantages it may have. It is therefore likely that the growth of ivy will need to be severely restricted, with excess growth regularly removed and cut back.
Although their root-like rhizoids may not cause damage, mosses pose a threat when they grow on roofs, since they absorb and hold moisture and can keep the surfaces of tiles damp. They can sometimes help frost to break up stone, but as they are not so keen on colonising badly decaying or crumbling stone their presence can be a sign of sound stonework. Plants along the base of a retaining wall will need to be removed, as they can trap moisture and cause damage to foundations.
Particular care needs to be taken over trees. Too many can make the churchyard overcast, causing damp and damaging walls, buildings, drains or memorials. Tree works are may be subject to faculty jurisdiction, and may require consultation with the Archdeacon and/or the DAC. See Trees in churchyards.
Trees may also be subject to a Tree Preservation Order imposed by the Local Authority. In a Conservation Area the Local Authority needs to be consulted for felling or significant lopping in any event. Where trees are next to a watercourse, the National Rivers Authority will need to be consulted.
The fully grown tree needs to be considered. Will it be too close to the church, boundary wall or adjoining houses? Will it harm existing memorials? A particular eye needs to be kept on trees that have self-seeded. Large fast growing species such as Leylandii must not be allowed near buildings, if at all, especially those built on shrinkable clay sub-soil. Care must be taken that overhead cables are not in danger of being touched. Tree roots may cause brickwork of an adjacent boundary wall to crack. If trees grow too close to the building their leaves can choke gutters and down pipes as well as their roots causing structural or foundation damage. Water damage is very commonly due to gutter and gully defects. Excessive tree cover may also block views of the church and prevent the grass from growing.
When any alterations to the churchyard landscaping are being planned, consideration needs to be given to how this will fit in with existing trees. The area around the roots of any tree must not be fully paved in such a way that it cannot receive rainwater.
The base of monuments forms a special habitat. The temptation should be resisted of cutting the grass closely around them with a strimmer. Strimmers can also damage the stones.
Hedges (and Poplar trees) are more effective than walls as wind breaks, and in enhancing security. Hedge cutting ought, if possible, avoid the nesting season of April to early July, although a hedge on a road junction needs to be diligently trimmed to provide safe visibility to drivers. If a hedge is over 2m high it can typicually support over ten species of birds, which is reduced to three if the hedge is shorter.
Birds and mammals
Pigeons and starlings need to be controlled. Ledges which resemble cliff faces need to be eliminated and roofs, ledges and rainwater goods protected by netting or their surfaces covered by spikes. These birds are “Schedule Two” birds under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and may be lawfully killed by an authorised person such as land-owner, occupier or agent.
In contrast, special provision is needed when any alterations are made affecting nesting swifts to safeguard their continued annual visits, by means of a swift box or other space with a suitably sized opening, very close to where swifts have nested before.
Among mammals, hedgehogs are becoming an increasingly rare sight, and should be encouraged wherever possible. Badgers and their setts are protected under the Badgers Act 1991.
Bats are also fully protected. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 requires that if any work is planned that might affect bats or their roosts, Natural England must be consulted. It is essential to establish whether bats are present in the church. If they are, two disturbances in a winter may kill them. These may take the form of works to roof, crypts and boiler rooms, felling of trees, installation of floodlighting, changes in temperature through installation of a new boiler, fitting of mesh to louvres in a tower, repairing of broken windows, re-tiling, repointing and repairing of cracks in walls and roof, and replacing doors by those which fit more tightly. Bats are able to use gaps as small as 8mm wide.
It is increasingly recognised that insect species are becoming severely depleted in the UK, whether bees or butterflies, or other species less well known but nevertheless of ecological importance. Grassland can be a home for many insects, and a feeding ground for larger animals like badgers. If they feed regularly in a churchyard it is important to take them into consideration if altering boundary hedges or fences.
Care and maintenance of churchyard fabric
Cleaning and repairs
Cleaning of walls and tombstones, where necessary, should be undertaken with environmentally friendly materials and methods.
Repointing of brickwork is best done using a lime-rich soft mortar. A 1:3:12 mixture of cement:lime:sand is often best for both wall and plants. If work proceeds in stages, new work can be colonised by plants, growing from the unrepaired parts. It can take 50 years for mortar to weather enough to permit re-growth. Wherever possible the plants should not be disturbed.
If lichen or green mould have made an inscription on a tomb illegible, this can be removed by covering a horizontal stone with a light coating of earth for two or three weeks and then brushing it off. If the stone is vertical, careful use of a blunt wooden scraper followed by the careful use of a biocide will enable the dead moss and lichen to be brushed away. However it is preferable to leave natural growth undisturbed when it is not the cause of unacceptable harm
When repair work is being carried out on tombs and monuments, plants within 1 metre of the structure may need to be removed. If biocide is being used, care should be taken that adjacent plant growth not scheduled for removal is not contaminated. If spraying is being undertaken, a sheet can be laid over ground plants to protect them. Spraying should not be carried out during windy weather.
When maintaining un-roofed monuments, it needs to be borne in mind that lichens function as soil formers. They may enable the establishment of mosses, small plants and even trees. At one time removal of all such vegetation was recommended, but more recently a technique known as “soft capping” has been supported by Historic England (used at Jervaulx Abbey in N Yorks). Grass and other plants are allowed to remain on the tops of walls, as they offer protection to the stones beneath by reducing extremes of temperature and the risks of frost damage.
Creeping plants, although often beautiful, can severely limit essential maintenance works. They can cause permanently dampen walls; disturb footings and plinths; scour Bath stone, Kentish Rag and other soft stone surfaces; inhibit access for painting, repair and maintenance. Fine rootlets after penetrating minute crevices will grow and eventually can exert enough force to split stones. They even pose a security risk if enabling access to higher level windows. It is recommended that the plant be allowed to climb against a stainless steel angle frame strung with stainless steel wire, attached to the wall by brackets or long bolts in tubular spacers. The growth of the plant should be kept well under control and in particular kept away from eaves, gutters and other openings.
Removal of dead ivy must be carried out with care rather than being tugged off the wall. It will need to be carefully cut or pulled out of each joint. Any growth left behind may, when it decays, support and create voids and weaknesses in a wall.
Any historic, listed structures in the churchyard such as lych-gates, mausolea, tombs, and walls can be put at risk by excessive vegetation clearance. Ground erosion and disturbance can result.
The urge to clear everything away when plants begin to die back during the autumn should be resisted, as allowing plants to set seed provides food for birds. Pruning and clearing can be left until late spring. Old logs and dead wood provide over-wintering sites for mammals, frogs, toads and invertebrates, all of which eat pests. Rotting tree stumps provide habitats for spiders, wasps, ladybirds, stag beetles, bats birds and mammals. Some dead leaves at the back of a border are liked by thrushes and other birds, who turn them over looking for snails, beetles and grubs.
Shrubberies and borders can provide shelter and a year=round food source. Often old-fashioned “cottage garden” flowers are popular with insects. Bees like hyacinth, crocus, foxgloves and lavender. Bumblebees like larkspurs, Michaelmas daisies and nasturtiums. Butterflies are partial to Buddleia (whilst noting the invasive character of this plant). Pyracantha and Viburnum provide berries attractive to blackbirds, waxwings and starlings. Sunflowers are popular with nuthatches, greenfinches and long-tailed tits. Marigolds attract hoverflies and ladybirds.
General management strategies
Is there an annual management plan? Managers need to take advice from a naturalist and determine the best strategy, based on local opinion, historic heritage and practical matters. To ensure support the ideas need to be explained and communicated effectively by means of a poster, display or article in the parish magazine.
The management plan needs to be authorized by the PCC, to give it the status necessary when applying for grants from professional bodies. The plan needs to incorporate such items as tree inspections, maintenance of footpaths and boundaries, planting of bulbs and annuals, pruning of shrubs and hedges, cleaning nesting boxes, removal of litter and briefing of volunteers. Without a plan, the initiative and responsibility may lie in the hands of a few parishioners who may in time have to withdraw.
Are there any schemes for the involvement of volunteers? Insurance covering specific work in the churchyard by volunteers is essential, as is first aid equipment.
Have any discussions taken place with the Local Planning Authority regarding their policies on biodiversity? It is important to establish a good rapport with the Local Authority, in order to establish the principle of mutual responsibility for the good of the entire local community.
Wildlife management strategies
Points to consider
Are native species of wildflowers, trees and shrubs being introduced? These are better adapted to local soils and climate. They will require less maintenance and are most closely associated with both insects and birds.
Have any surveys been undertaken by specialists (butterfly, bat, botanist, ornithologist, lichen expert, geologist)? Have the London Wildlife Trust, Natural England or British Trust for Conservation Volunteers been involved? (The London Wildlife Trust’s remit includes site surveys, possible speakers, background resources and educational opportunities).
Are there (to be) any nesting boxes (for small birds eg swifts, owls and bats)?
Grassland is a particularly important habitat, because outside churchyards a large amount of meadowland has disappeared in recent times. A range of grass cutting regimes can benefit many different plants and insects. Does the grass cutting incorporate a mini wildflower meadow area of benefit to wildlife as well as an area of grass laid to lawn? A meadow can be very colourful and will need much less mowing than conventional lawns.
How is waste wood to be disposed of? A wood-pile and recycling are much preferable. Burning in the open air is unacceptable.
It needs to be remembered that the primary aim of conservation is to care for what is already there. The plants and animals in a churchyard will be suited to whatever management they are currently receiving, and may decline or disappear if this management is changed.
Educational usage: questions to consider
Is the churchyard mentioned in the local parish magazine or local press?
Is there any co-operation with schools (especially the church school), or with youth clubs/uniformed groups? The churchyard could be used as an outdoor classroom for local schools.
Is there a wildlife trail or tombstone trail?
Is there a descriptive leaflet or board informing the public that the area is a wildlife sanctuary? Details of the purpose of any conservation schemes need to be provided.
Is there an opportunity for visitors to record personal sightings of fauna and flora?
A Churchyard event such as a barbeque can be held to show what there is in the churchyard.
There could be a display in a local library or hall and involvement of the churchyard in local events.
Has the local history society been involved?
Specialist societies for mosses, liverworts, reptiles, amphibia, fungi, molluscs and insects can be contacted via:
- The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 5BD
- The Conservation Foundation, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR, 020 7591 3111
- The British Lichen Society, c/o Lichen Herbarium, Dept of Life Sciences, Natural History Museum, London SW7 5BD
- Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), The Lodge, Potton, Sandy,Bedfordshire SG19 2DL, 01767 680 551
- The Tree Council, 4 Dock Offices, Surrey Quays Road, London
SE16 2XU, 020 7407 9992
- Arboricultural Association, The Malthouse, Stroud Green, Standish, Stonehouse, Gloucestershire GL10 3DL, 01242 522152.
The Conservation Volunteers provides advice, projects and training courses for groups and individuals wishing to undertake practical conservation works. Local groups of volunteers can undertake regular tasks by request. A series of practical handbooks and training leaflets are provided:
- Conservation Volunteers, Sedum House, Mallard Way, Doncaster
DN4 8DB, 01302 388 883.
- Ashurst, John & Nicola, 1998, “Volume 1 Stone Masonry” in “Practical Building Conservation English Heritage Technical Handbook, Gower Technical Press (ISBN 0 291 39745 X)
- Burman, Peter, & Stapleton, Henry, 1988, The Churchyards Handbook, Church House Publishing, third edition (ISBN 07151 7554 8)
- Ditto, Cocke, Thomas (ed), fourth edition (ISBN 07151 75831)
- Cooper, Nigel, 1995, Wildlife in Church and Churchyard. Plants, Animals and their Management, Church House Publishing, (ISBN 0 7151 7574 2)
- Evans, David, 1997, A Survey of “The Living Churchyard Project”, Sabbatical Project
- Royal Botanical Gardens, Greener Gardening – for wildlife and the environment, Kew.
- Watt, David & Swallow, Peter, 1996, Surveying Historic Buildings, Donhead Publishing Ltd (ISBN 1 873394 16 0).