Life among the tombstones...
It is tempting to think of a churchyard as a single entity, but in reality it is a multitude of different habitats, each appropriate for a different range of species. The most important among the larger of these habitats are the soil, the gravestones and the area immediately around each grave, the different parts of the church building, the enclosing churchyard boundary, trees, shrubs, paths and storage or compost areas. Within each of these are smaller micro-habitats – all important in their own individual way.
1 The tree most associated with churchyards is that noble conifer, the YEW – though the connection is still not clear. It cannot be for the oft-quoted reason to supply archers with longbow wood: given the size of a medieval army, the supply would
have run out in a few years. It seems likely that early Christianity took over some ancient and still unknown pagan association of yews with sacred ritual and built its churches on the same sites.
2 One of the commonest of all churchyard lichens – and one of the most beautiful – is the GOLDEN
CRUSTOSE, Caloplaca flavescens, which is found on base-rich headstones almost everywhere in lowland Britain.
3 It’s neither common nor widespread, but the GRAVEYARD BEETLE cannot escape a mention because it is the only creature specifically named after this habitat. Though it seems unsavoury to us, it is attracted to recently buried corpses, perhaps to feed on the maggots.
4 The only reptile to be found at all frequently in churchyards is the SLOW
WORM, a legless lizard. It basks on graves and warm heaps of grass cuttings, and has a fondness for compost bins, where it hunts slugs.
5 The SNAKE’S HEAD
FRITILLARY is possibly a native species and a truly exquisite spring-flowering plant. It flourishes in some undisturbed churchyards with damp, moistureretentive soil, where it may be a relict plant of ancient meadowland.
6 There are no more beautiful toadstools than the WAXCAPS, but unlike almost all other churchyard species, they thrive in closely mown turf which mimics heavily grazed grassland – always provided no fertiliser has been used.
7 MOLE The least often seen but perhaps the commonest churchyard mammal, its subterranean tunnelling betrayed by mounds of soil among gravestones. Headstones and even coffins have been disturbed by mole activity.
8 The unmistakable vivid red flowers of the FIELD POPPY are as welcome in churchyards as they are unwelcome to farmers in their role as cornfield weeds. They may, however, indicate an ancient agricultural use for churchyard land.
9 No mammals are more associated with churchyards than BATS. Although ‘bats in the belfry’ is an expression known to everyone, it is actually the last place in a church you should expect to find them because it is too cold.
Left: crumbling old gravestones are perfect habitats for mosses and slowgrowing lichen. 7 6