JThey are found in nearly every village, town and city across the UK, with thousands of churches dotting the landscape. But while many are no longer in regular use, the cemeteries around them – quiet, peaceful and often ancient – are what Olivia Graham, the Bishop of Reading, likens to “a little national park”. The land beyond the church door is one of the most biodiverse in the UK as it has remained largely untouched.
“A graveyard is a little snapshot of what the countryside was like,” says Somerset Wildlife Trust Pippa Rayner, who works on wilder churchesa new initiative with the Diocese of Bath and Wells “to improve the biodiversity of graveyards across the county”.
“Very often, in a highly industrialized rural landscape, fields around villages can be covered in agricultural chemicals. You often find that the cemetery is the only place in the area where they haven’t used chemicals,” says Rayner. “The fact that they were generally managed differently from the rest of the countryside, and cared for in a different way, allowed the species to still be there,” she adds.
Wilder Churches is one of many schemes launched across the UK with the aim of maximizing biodiversity in cemeteries. David Curry leads the living cemeteries project in the South West of England, a voluntary program that advises local clerics on how to use the land surrounding their church for the benefit of nature.
“Eight hundred years ago, Christian churches were built on pagan sites — springs, wells, or wooded glades,” Curry explains. “Around the church is an area – the litten – where people are buried. A few hundred years later, someone decided that all churches should be surrounded by a wall. Since then they have never been plowed, treated with chemicals or anything like that. So you have this incredible gene bank, which originated in any habitat 800 years ago, stayed there – and it’s still there.
Rayner thinks the lack of pollution and relative lack of human activity in cemeteries make them a much-needed sanctuary for wildlife.
“Wildlife, in addition to having to feed, needs to hide, shelter and nest. Cemeteries provide many opportunities for this,” says Rayner. “They’re brilliant at a lot of different things: it can be birds, a lot of lesser-known plants, things like lichens, mosses and liverworts, which are sort of pioneer species that grow on rocks and gravel areas associated with a cemetery. It is a fantastic place for bees and butterflies, but also for less visible small mammals, which in turn provide food for birds of prey and owls.
“Cemeteries are some of the least polluted land in the world,” says Andy Atkins, CEO of United Kingdom, a Christian conservation charity whose “eco-church” program rewards churches for their positive climate and nature actions. Last year it saw the highest number of enrollments in the scheme in its six-year run, with 10% of churches in England and Wales now pledging their commitment to the scheme.
St James’s Piccadilly in central London is a landmark green church, in part thanks to its efforts to promote biodiversity in an urban space. Deborah Colvin, one of the wardens, says she hopes her cemetery can provide a green bond in a concrete landscape. “Let’s get the hedgehogs out of the ground from Regent’s Park to the river,” Colvin said. “It’s a joke, but if you start thinking like that, then what would you put in place? The kind of work you could do in this environment… is about links, corridors.
In addition to sophisticated planting and monitoring programs, the church is looking for ways to engage the public, including a walking tour designed by artist-in-residence Esmeralda Valencia Lindström where visitors are encouraged to don magnifying glasses to see some of the church’s lichens and microfauna up close.
the “Churches rely on nature” program is another initiative launched in 2021, a joint effort by the Church of England, A Rocha UK, Caring for God’s Acre and the Church of Wales to encourage people to observe and record the different species in their cemeteries for a week. Sixteen thousand records have been submitted to the National Biodiversity Database and Helen Stephens, head of A Rocha UK’s eco-church initiative, said some of the findings were remarkable. “In a church in Ham, southwest London, in the middle of a housing estate, on little land, they counted 100 species of plants in a small patch of grass, including a rather rare bee orchid,” she says.
Despite a growing appreciation for nature’s richness of cemeteries, many believe there is additional potential to be unlocked in the ground between headstones. “There is a lot of scope in our cemeteries to manage the soil to increase plant species,” says Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich and senior Church of England bishop for the environment. “You can set up bug hotels, bat houses and birdhouses; there are many ways to make your cemetery a much more biodiverse and attractive place.
Curry thinks the biggest change that can be made is a more enlightened grass-cutting system. “We go to these churches to improve biodiversity, and the first thing I ask is, ‘How often do you cut your grass?’ Then the vicar complains about spending £1,200 a year mowing the grass,” he says. “I tell them to stop mowing the grass – to mow it four times a year, at the right time. It does not need to be manicured.
As communities become increasingly involved in initiatives such as Wilder Churches, it is hoped that they too will benefit from the biodiversity boost.
“There is an intrinsic value to nature, and having cemeteries that thrive with nature means they can be spaces where those who live in the community can revel in what they see, what they feel and what they hear,” Usher said. “We want to remember that churches are not places of death but places of life. There is real motivation for this from members of communities and congregations who are passionate about the environment and want to support these efforts.
Beyond cemeteries, religious institutions are increasingly calling on world leaders to act for the climate and nature. The Church of England is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2030. With the support of A Rocha UK, over 2,200 churches in England and Wales have held ‘Climate Sunday’ sermons in anticipation of COP26.
“We think churches have a huge role to play in the future by signaling to people what kind of actions they can take,” Atkins says. “Most people very easily see a church in their neighborhood. You don’t have to be a registered Christian to go, there is huge potential for churches to facilitate and inspire action locally.
Usher agrees that everyone should get involved in nature conservation. He says, “We inherited a garden – that’s the story of the Garden of Eden. We must not leave those who come after us with a desert.