The Living Churchyard

David Manning


Many historic churches and chapels are a haven for wildlife. As building maintenance and conservation measures can have disastrous consequences for the natural environment, those responsible for their care need to be aware of the issues involved and the opportunities for creative management.

At first glance the churchyard is merely a piece of land surrounding the church building, given a different status from any garden simply because of its role as the burial ground. Yet a closer look shows that the relationship is much more complicated and unique than at first it seems and one which only now conservationists are beginning to recognise. Not only does the churchyard have a significant role in terms of local biodiversity and social history but the building/curtilage relationship is, in fact, vital for those species that dwell in these special places.

It is generally accepted that Christianity impacted upon this country around 2,000 years ago. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that churches sprang up as Christianity spread throughout the country and that churchyards followed as they were built. There is little doubt that this was the case and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. However, what is a little more complicated is the reasoning behind the siting of many churches. Rather than forcing the authority of the early Christian church upon the inhabitants of Britain by destroying old sacred sites and building new ones, in many cases churches were built into or adjacent to pre-Christian sites of worship, drawing them into the new faith. Once the church was built, a bank and ditch would then have demarcated this new sacred area - a separation which continues today. It could, therefore, be said that in many cases the churchyard actually predates the church, a statement supported by recent work from the Conservation Foundation showing that yew trees could be much older than originally thought. The yew was sacred to pre-Christian religions, symbolising immortality and knowledge, and was probably the basis for many ritual sites. The new research has shown that these trees could live to be many thousands of years old due to their unique ability to regenerate. The fact that a vast majority of the country's ancient yews are to be found in churchyards is no coincidence and it is, therefore, likely that churches and churchyards sprang up which incorporated these amazing trees. The unique separation of churchyards from their surroundings, combined with a continuity of management is probably the most important reason for their value as havens for wildlife today.

As years passed, and especially in the latter part of the 20th century, the churchyard wall or hedge took on a very important role. Agricultural intensification and 'improvement', especially in the form of herbicide and pesticide sprays, combined with urban sprawl took its toll on the biodiversity of many areas of the country - so much so that English Nature statistics show that Britain lost 98 per cent of its semi-natural grassland within approximately three decades. Yet the churchyard boundary protected the species within, creating small oases for wildlife across the country.

The main type of habitat found in churchyards is 'semi-natural grassland', a species-rich habitat, often with a high floral content. In some cases this may take the form of long meadow grasses amongst which floral plants such as ox-eye daisy, common poppy and yellow rattle grow, giving the effect of a hay meadow. In other cases the grass may be much shorter allowing bird's-foot trefoil or orchids to grow. This variation in management and subsequent species diversity make carefully managed churchyards so important. This is now being recognised and many throughout Britain have now been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest by English Nature.

However, grassland is only one of the many habitats to be found within churchyards. Headstones in particular have an ecology of their own, and one of the most overlooked, but intrinsically important elements of the churchyard is the growth of lichens on the stones. The different greys, greens and yellows give a sense of age to the churchyard and a feeling of warmth to the stones. Lichens are an example of 'symbiosis', the relationship between living organisms in which each organism depends on the other. Lichens are a mixture of a fungus and an alga, the fungal body providing the matrix for the alga to live and the alga providing food for the fungus through photosynthesis. They are extremely sensitive to change and need a very precise microclimate in which to survive. This is why you will find different lichen species on the front, back and tops of headstones. For example, one of the most common lichen species, the Xanthorias (bright orange) thrive on the nutrient-rich tops of headstones where bird droppings accumulate. If a headstone is moved out, as often happened in the 1970s to ease management, the likelihood is that the lichens will not survive. In Britain we have around 1,500 different species of lichen and of these 300 can only be found in rural churchyards, possibly due to the diversity of stone types and the lower atmospheric pollution levels in rural areas.

One of the most controversial features of churches and churchyards are bats. These mammals often use church buildings as a roost and the surrounding area for hunting grounds - a further example of the role that these sites play in acting as a bridge between the built and natural environment. All species of bat are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 and it is an offence to disturb either the animals themselves or their roosts without permission from English Nature. Whilst this Act has done much for the protection of bats, they are still very much under threat even in churches. A report entitled Bats in Churches by The Bat Conservation Trust highlighted the danger posed by chemical timber treatments and the use of certain types of flood lighting. The latter can interfere with the animal's sonar, thus increasing the likelihood of death or injury through crashing in flight.

Nature conservationists firmly believe that bats should be left to use the churches as they need to. However, controversy arises when a large roost is using a church. As bats are warm-blooded the act of flying and hunting involves the expenditure of much energy. Therefore, before they set out to hunt at dusk, each animal minimises its body weight through defecation. If there are several hundred animals in one church this can have a cumulative effect, especially when the faeces are combined with urine. Not only can this be a nightmare for church cleaners but the urine can also have a corrosive affect on brasses and woodwork.

If bats present a serious problem in a church and it really is necessary to move them out of the building then it is important to seek expert advice. Any intervention requires a bat handling license. The local wildlife trust will have an expert that can advise, and The Bat Conservation Trust, English Nature and English Heritage may also be of some help.

It seems obvious that the church and churchyard fulfils a vital role, not only in the social structure of human communities but also in the biodiversity of the country. So why, if this role really is so obvious, do churchyards need special conservation measures? The problem, as with most environmental issues, stems from human misunderstanding or ignorance. Traditionally churchyards were managed in much the same way as any other meadowland, either being grazed by sheep or goats or mown by scythe two or three times per year with the rights of herbage going to the incumbent. This is the perfect form of management for this type of grassland and, indeed, gives it its name of 'semi-natural'. However, over the past 30 years new expectations for the countryside have crept in, leading to the uprooting of headstones and the intensification of mowing regimes. In effect this has destroyed hundreds of acres of habitat on a national scale and created churchyards that look like municipal parks or bowling greens, devoid of any botanical interest. The need to regiment or suburbanise the countryside, combined with the increased use of machine-made black polished headstones upon which lichens cannot grow, has turned many ecologically diverse and beautiful churchyards into depressingly uniform environmental deserts.

Perhaps more alarming still has been the overall public perception of nature conservation. Advisors on the management of sites around the country are frequently introduced to so-called 'conservation areas' within churchyards, most of which are pieces of bramble and rank grassland that cannot be reached by the mower. When it is pointed out that their 'conservation area' has little more botanical interest than the perennial rye grass that covers the rest of the churchyard there is always a certain amount of surprise. This shows that it is the public perception of conservation that needs to be changed before any impact will be seen at grassroots level.

In churchyards we need to recognise that it is not just the church building or bells that need to be conserved but also the land around them, and that conservation is not about letting things grow unchecked but about positive management. In the same way that buildings start to decay as soon as they are erected and that their conservation is simply delaying the inevitable, churchyards need to have constant consistent management if they are to survive as havens for wildlife in an increasingly ecologically stagnant Britain.


Recommended Reading

  • Nigel Cooper, Wildlife in Church & Churchyard, Church House Publishing, London, 1995
  • Francesca Greenoak, Wildlife in the Churchyard, the Plants and Animals of God's Acre, Little Brown Books, London, 1993
  • Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer, Sacred Britain, Piatkus, London, 1997

Useful Addresses

This article is reproduced from The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1999


DAVID MANNING is the Project Leader of the Church & Conservation Project. He works nationally advising on the management and creation of churchyards and sacred sites. His published works include Your Sacred Garden, co-written with Martin Palmer.

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