The cemetery was originally built on agricultural land called Hatton’s Platt which was outside of the borough boundary. It is likely to have retained species from this time and likely to be a remnant of the grassland communities that existed across much of Reading prior to its urbanisation in the 19th century.
Such grasslands were traditionally managed by grazing and or hay cutting. This produced a diversity of sward height and species, which in turn supported a diversity of invertebrates.
The loss of wildflower meadows in the UK
According to The Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the 1930s. Reading Old Cemetery contains some of this 3% remaining habitat, sometimes referred to as ‘unimproved grassland’ as it has not been ‘improved’ by artificial (nitrate) fertilisers and pesticides.
Given the worrying decline in traditional wildlflower meadows here in the UK, the grassland within Reading Old Cemetery can be viewed as a valuable repository or ‘Noah’s ark’ – containing a valuable seed-bank which can in turn be used to help to create and/or restore other wildflower meadow habitats not only within the cemetery itself but also further afield.
The wildlife value of wildflower meadows
Wildflower meadows provide vital shelter and food pollen for a range of pollinators (including bees, butterflies, moths, wasps) and other invertebrates. These invertebrates provide food for other creatures further up the food chain – including birds, reptiles, amphibians plus bats, hedgehogs and other mammals.
Often overlooked is the carbon sequestration (storage) rates of a well managed meadow. Permanent grasslands hold about a third of Earth’s terrestrial carbon, meaning they can’t be overlooked when we talk about slowing climate change. Thus, more grasslands, and especially more biodiverse grasslands, means more natural carbon storage. Yet instead of expanding these habitats, we risk losing them entirely. (Gill Perkins, New Scientist, October 2021)
Wildflower meadow management at Reading Old Cemetery
According to the Reading Cemetery Local Wildlife Plan (2015) the site contains “some elements of a UKBAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) Priority Lowland Meadow habitat, including four lowland meadow grassland indicator species and that its ‘urban setting and isolation increases its ecological value”.
These four lowland meadow indicator species are: meadow vetchling, oxeye daisy, common bird’s foot-trefoil and lady’s bedstraw and “its urban setting and isolation increases its ecological value”. Refer below for more information about these wild flower species.
Thus, one of its main objectives is “To maintain a botanically diverse grassland maximising the site’s wildlife and amenity value”.
In accordance with the site’s Management Plan (2015), the cemetery contains two areas that are managed as wildflower meadows and as such receive 2 cuts per year (late July and late September/early October). The cuttings are then left for a minimum of 3 days to allow seeds to drop from flower heads. The Friends of Reading Old Cemetery then rake these two areas to remove these cuttings.
The rest of the grassland in the cemetery is cut 6 times a year with the arisings left in-situ. The Friends of Reading Old are currently in talks with Reading Borough Council to manage some of this grassland as wildflower meadows too.
In agreement with RBC, The Friends of Reading Old Cemetery have started sowing Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seeds into these two wildflower meadow areas. This plant is commonly found in traditional wildflower meadow habitats and is semi-parasitic on grasses. Thus, not only does the plant help suppress surrounding grasses (than can outcompete the wildflowers), it also leaves a helpful bare space for wildflower seeds to fall and germinate.
The seeds were harvested (with the help of pupils from Redlands Primary School) from a local wildflower meadow at The Museum of English Rural Life – MERL. Many thanks again to MERL for their permission.
For more information about grassland manangment in cemeteries and burial grounds refer to Caring for God’s Acre.
UKBAP Lowland Meadow Habitat Species found at Reading Old Cemetery (in alphabetical order according to common names).
Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
Bird’s foot trefoil is also a member of the pea and clover family (legume) and is a low-growing plant that has small yellow, slipper-like flowers that grow in small clusters. It is in flower from May to September.
It is sometimes known as ‘eggs and bacon plant’ or ‘rhubarb and custard’ because of its yellow flowers and reddish buds It is also referred to as ‘granny’s toenails’ because of its claw-like seed pods! Its leaves have five leaflets and are downy.
Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
Lady’s bedstraw is a perennial wildflower and a familiar sight in traditional wildflower meadows. It’s frothy, yellow flowers fills the air of Reading Old Cemetery with the smell of honey.
When dried, this flower has the scent of new-mown hay and was traditionally used for stuffing mattresses – particularly those of women about to give birth as it is thought to have a sedative effect. It also has an astringent quality and was used to repel bed fleas!
In the past, lady’s bedstraw was also used to curdle milk in the process of cheese-making – a convenient vegetarian replacement for rennet, which is made from the stomach lining of cows. The plant was also used as a dye and was even used to give Double Gloucester cheese its distinctive colour.
Lady’s bedstraw is excellent for wildlife as it provides nectar for pollinating insects such as bumblebees and butterflies and food for caterpillars of several moths, including the humming bird hawk-moth.
Meadow vetchling (Lathyrus pratensis)
Meadow vetchling is a member of the pea and clover family (legumes). It is a scrambling plant with long stems that end with a group of four to twelve yellow, pea-like flowers that appear between May and August – attracting bees and wasps. The flowers are followed by shiny, black seed pods that look like peapods. Its leaves comprise a single pair of leaflets that have tendrils.
Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
During the spring and summer months the cemetery is adorned with Oxeye daisies – which are sometimes also called ‘Moon daisy’ or ‘Moonpenny’.
The flower is easy to identify by its large, round flower heads that appear on single, tall stems. It has spoon-shaped leaves at its base and thin, jagged leaves along the stem.
Useful identification guides for wildflower meadows