For the greater glory of God’s acre
As increasing numbers of churchyards are developed as wildlife havens, Vicky Liddell wanders among the headstones to discover how all creatures great and small are thriving on sacred ground
Summer has arrived in the country churchyard of St Giles’s, Stanton St Quintin in Wiltshire. The celandine carpet has given way to a lacy jungle of cow parsley and waist-high ox-eye daisies, which sway among the lichenencrusted gravestones. A song thrush is using a kerbstone to break open a snail shell and bumblebees are buzzing lazily among the nectar-rich flowers.
Over the past 15 years, as part of the Living Churchyard project, this is a scene that’s been replicated all over the country, as more and more churches have recognised the value of their plots for wildlife. Although much of the land around churches has been swallowed up for housing or agriculture, the acres within have become an important sanctuary, with ancient seed banks and a botanical diversity that’s unmatched. As well as three-quarters of the uk’s ancient yews, there are some plants—such as the meadow saxifrage and the green-winged orchid— that are often only found in churchyards. The ancient headstones boast an ecology all of their own, as they support as many as 700 different lichens; the church buildings provide vital nesting locations for martins, swifts and swallows and great crested newts are often found in crypts.
With the Living Churchyard project now in its 19th year at St Giles, the church is one of the leading pioneers of the regional programme and a holder of numerous awards. The initiative burst into life in 1997 after Ivan randall, a parishioner and joint coordinator