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Divine inspiration: How Cambridgeshire’s churchyards can help wildlife to flourish





Established 40 years ago, the Wildlife Trust’s churchyard conservation award scheme is now being firmly embraced in Cambridgeshire, writes Caroline Fitton.

A wild churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN
A wild churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN

In the corner of every parish in the county are small undisturbed havens where wildlife can flourish - many churchyards originate from flower-rich meadows, and over the centuries, while land outside church boundaries was ‘improved’ by ploughing and fertilisers or engulfed by concrete, inside the grasslands remained comparatively untouched, locked in an ecological time warp.

A traditionally managed churchyard gives a sense of the botanical diversity once common in lowland Britain before modern farming practices destroyed more than 80 per cent of our wildflower grasslands. Meadow saxifrage, pignut, bulbous buttercup, cuckoo flower and orchids flourish between graves - these unsung, unscheduled nature reserves are still some of the most biodiverse environments in the UK.

This year the Wildlife Trust's Churchyard Conservation Award scheme marks 40 years, having been set up originally in Northamptonshire by botanist and conservationist Franklyn Perring, and the scheme is now thriving in Cambridgeshire.

Field scabious. Picture: Rebecca Neal
Field scabious. Picture: Rebecca Neal

There are bronze, silver and gold awards to aspire to with a points system accrued for various criteria - any churchyard can enter and receive a free advisory visit; award winners receive a display plaque.

The trust is currently engaged with more than 100 churchyards across both counties, all doing their bit to encourage biodiversity in their local spaces.

St Mary’s Church in Swaffham Bulbeck is 700 years old, so the churchyard is likely to have been covered in grass and herbs for hundreds of years.

A churchyard with wildflowers
A churchyard with wildflowers

In a busy agricultural landscape, long-established grassland like this can be an oasis of valuable habitat for wildflowers and for the insects, birds and mammals that depend on them for food and shelter. Until a few years ago the churchyard would be completely mown several times a year by East Cambridgeshire District Council to create a 'smart neat lawn’ all round the church, but no flowers.

In 2019, the church council agreed to experiment by reducing the cutting of one section to just twice yearly in spring and autumn, resulting in an amazing display of colours with pale blue scabious, purple knapweed, bright yellow lady’s bed-straw and red clover. The plants had been there all along but had never been given the chance to flower or to set seed for decades because of the mowing; needless to say pollinators and bees loved it, so the plan was extended to the southern part of the churchyard.

A wild churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN
A wild churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN

Now in spring daffodils and primroses flower and seed, a wide range of flowers appear providing pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies, and a late cutting allows them to set seed and multiply. Some uncut areas and a compost heap provide tall, damp vegetation appealing to frogs, toads, snails and small mammals.

Wildflower meadows grow best on soil that is poor in nutrients, on richer soils, the grasses grow too vigorously and crowd out the other species. When grass is growing rapidly in spring, it is full of nutrients like nitrogen, so removing the cuttings prevents the nutrients being returned to the soil.

An impressive tally of 84 species of flowering plants have been recorded - 60 species of wildflowers, nine species of grasses and sedge, many species of shrubs, trees, ferns, plus on the gravestones species of mosses, liverwort along with 64 species of lichens.

Swifts now nesting in the tower after 16 nest boxes were made and installed, with a call device emitting recordings of the high-pitched squeaks and whistles of swifts played daily from May to August. Swifts are highly sociable birds and the call device has proved very successful.

In the trust's scheme, the churchyard has received a bronze award in 2021 and is now well on their way to achieving silver.

The Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, at All Saints in Graham. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN
The Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, at All Saints in Graham. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN

In 2020, when the first award in the county was made to All Saints, Grafham, patron of the scheme, the Bishop of Ely, the Right Reverend Stephen Conway, attended to deliver a service with a focus on biodiversity and a celebration of what they had achieved, and afterwards the congregation dispersed wildflower seed bombs in the churchyard.

New to the scheme last year was St Peter and Vincula Church in Coveney, which won a bronze award after members of the community helped to create and nurture space for local wildlife.

Churchwarden Chris Warner said: “The whole project has been all about seeding the involvement of the community and lots of people have chosen to get involved.

Lichen in a churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN
Lichen in a churchyard. Picture: Wildlife Trust BCN

“Brothers Tom and Leo Becker regularly water and keep the wildlife water stations topped up, the birdboxes have been handmade and we hope the improvements made for wildlife will be an inspiration to others.”

Visit wildlifebcn.org/about-us/advice-landowners/churchyards.



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