Butterflies dancing between colourful wildflowers, birds singing and flitting from tree to tree, hedgehogs waiting in the shelter of their nests for night to fall – a perfect picture of the British countryside. But unique ecosystems like this have found an unusual place to thrive: the graveyard.
Many places where the dead lie at rest are teeming with life and in congested towns and cities they can be a valuable sanctuary for wildlife. Now, increasing numbers of burial grounds and graveyards are deliberately being managed as urban nature reserves and suitable habitats for wild animals, birds and plants to live among the tombstones. Meanwhile, at other cemeteries, local people are fighting fiercely to protect the already rich plant and wildlife living there.
As most cemeteries were laid out prior to the more industrial farming practices, they can be refuges for species that are not found in the wider countryside. Cemetries provide homes for foxes, badgers, bats, snakes and lizards, stag beetles, deer, songbirds, as well as flora and invertebrates.
There is an estimated 7,000 hectares of cemeteries in England, Cemeteries were not as intensively managed as other urban green spaces.
They are not like agricultural land, or even gardens, where you have herbicide spraying or slug pellets being put down. They are fragments of former countryside that retain the natural features of a bygone landscape. Veteran trees provide important habitats for many key species, including insects, fungi, bird and bats. The management of burial grounds hasn’t really changed over time. Apart from grave digging, burial grounds are undisturbed, timeless sanctuaries where plant and animal populations have increased. Longevity of management is rare elsewhere, and in habitat terms is important, this means that the whole food chain is there, from invertebrates right up to the higher mammals – even close into the city centre.
Most churchyards and cemeteries date from well before the widespread losses to our natural heritage occurred, and so are arks for species and habitats going back through the centuries. Some burial sites may have been founded on older pre-Christian sacred sites whilst many younger burial grounds such as the Victorian cemeteries have been in existence for over 100 years.
- Yews are associated with life, death and immortality and have been planted in burial grounds and holy sites for centuries. As a result, three quarters of the UK’s ancient or veteran yews are now found in the churchyards of England and Wales. These are the oldest living things in the UK – many are over 500 with some over 2,000 years old and there is no known limit to how long they can live..
- If you are interested in lichens, then look in your local burial ground. Boundary walls, monuments, trees and grassland may all host lichens which may have been growing for hundreds of years. Have a look at them through a magnifying glass; you’ll enter a fascinating miniature world.
- This habitat has decreased by about 97% nationally in the last 60 years but is present in many burial grounds, usually unrecognised, undesignated or managed as an important habitat.
Don’t forget the people
- Of course burial grounds are not nature reserves but places of burial and remembrance, make your visit appropriate and respectful take a moment to appreciate the whole site, visit graves, read memorial inscriptions and ponder on the lives of the people remembered there. Take a moment to reflect on your own life and how you will be remembered.