Wildlife value of cemeteries and burial grounds

Photo credit: Leslee Barron

According to Harriet Party (Beautiful Grounds Conference, Caring for God’s Acre, 2022) there are over 20,000 burial grounds in the UK – which equates roughly to the size of the Isle of Wight – so it is a significant area of land and as such they are important sanctuaries for wildlife. In addition, they play an important role as ‘wildlife corridors’. 

The oldest trees in the country are found in burial grounds and churchyards – with ancient yews being amongst these. For more information visit – https://www.ancient-yew.org

As noted by Caring for God’s Acre – both the walls that surround our burial ground and the gravestones found within provide the perfect habitats for lichen. There are about 2,000 species of lichen in the UK and over 700 occur in burial grounds – thus making these sites accidental lichen sanctuaries! In many cases, lichens help to protect the stonework and also the lettering on gravestones, etc. For more information about Lichens in churchyards read the Caring for God’s Acre factsheet and or purchase The Field Studies Council – Common Churchyard Lichen Identification chart.

As many older burial grounds were created and enclosed before World War II and thus prior to the advent and widespread use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides, the grassland within these sites has not been ‘improved’.

Since the WWII, we have lost over 97% of our flower rich grasslands here in the UK. Many cemeteries and burial sites (including Reading Old Cemetery) often contain some of this remaining 3% of this valuable habitat and as such can be viewed as wildflower oasis or seed ‘repositories’, which can be used to help re-create flower-rich grasslands elsewhere. 

Several of the local Wildlife Trusts (including Dorset and Devon Wildlife Trusts) also run a Living Churchyards Project – which gives practical tips and advice on the management of burial grounds for the benefit of wildlife.

Living churchyards image which has shows a wildflower rich grassland area (containing gravestones)in the foreground and a church building in the background
Source: Dorset Wildlife Trust, Living Churchyards Website

During 2021, Somerset Wildlife Trust, in collaboration with the Diocese of Bath and Wells, launched a joint initiative called ‘Wilder Churches‘ which aims to support communities to make space for nature in their local churchyard and is set to enhance churchyard biodiversity across the county.

Source: God’s own gardens: why churchayards are some of our wildest nature sites – The Guardian (6/5/2022)

An article in The Guardian (6/5/20220) outlines why churchyards are some of our ‘wildest nature spaces”. Indeed as Olivia Graham, the Bishop of Reading states, collectively churchyards and burial grounds equate to “a small national park”. The land beyond the church gate is some of the most biodiverse in the UK because it has largely stayed untouched.

Source: ‘Churchyards are our forgotten nature reserves’ – The Guardian (19/3/2017)

Another article in The Guardian (19/32017) outlines how ‘Churchyards are our forgotten nature reserves’.

For more detailed information about why burial grounds are “Havens for Wildlife’ refer to the Caring for God’s Acre website .

Also visit Historic England’s website for further reading about The Importance of Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds and the role they play as part of our local and national Green Infrastructure (GI)