Churchyard Management Plan
The churchyard – God’s acre – can become a sanctuary for the living as well as the dead, with an abundance and diversity of indigenous and naturalized wildlife. We are proposing this year to explore ways in which to manage the churchyard that are sympathetic to the natural habitat and ecology of native plants and animals.
This can be achieved by designating some parts as ‘meadow areas’, which are mown less frequently in order to allow wild flowers to grow and set seed, and other parts as permanent close-mown grass. When defining these areas, it is important to bear in mind that the churchyard should be
• A pleasant, reflective place for congregation and visitors
• A fit and proper setting for the church
• An environment in keeping with the purpose of burial and memorials to those who have been cremated, with an atmosphere of respect and commemoration for the departed
• A haven for grasses, wild flowers, trees, birds, butterflies and other wild creatures.
• Ideally, there should be a survey of species present in the intended ‘meadow areas’ in order to design the optimum mowing plan. However, a botanist who has visited the churchyard has pointed out that, because the grass has been mown so short everywhere, there are very few species of wild flowers evident. This may be because they have been cut down by the mowing. A small number of species has nevertheless been identified.
In order to determine the best way to achieve this, we propose to set up two ‘meadow areas’ to investigate the success of two different management plans, which if appropriate can be extended to a wider area. The two areas will both be in the open grass in the South East of the churchyard, and will not enclose any gravestones or other memorials. One area will be left to develop ‘as is’, the other will first be stripped of topsoil so as to reduce its fertility and hopefully allow the less vigorous plants to grow without being swamped by the more vigorous grasses.
The meadow areas will be left uncut until the end of September in the first year, in order to allow any wild flowers to bloom and set seed. The cuttings will then be removed. There will be a further cut at the end of October, again with removal of cuttings. This is important to reduce the fertility of the soil and encourage a greater diversity of wild flowers.
Other areas of the churchyard will be mown as at present, cutting regularly and closely.
There will be a further survey of the flowers in the meadow areas at the end of the first season, to determine whether the mowing pattern should be developed in the light of the species then present. It is hoped that parishioners of all ages might wish to become involved in surveys throughout the year.
If anyone has any questions or comments on what is being done, I will be happy to answer any questions and to provide further detail as required.
After one year, where do we stand and how do we intend to grow this year?
The cutting programme of last summer has greatly increased the number and variety of plants that are growing in the meadow area, compared with the more conventionally cut grass around it. What these plants are is yet to be revealed, once the cold weather of early April gives way – hopefully – to some balmier zephyrs later in the spring. A couple of dandelion heads, and the lovely purple-pink of red dead-nettle, are the only ones brave enough to show their colours as I write. Large bumblebees fly low around the sward: these are the queens of the Buff-tailed Bumblebee. Unlike honeybees, bumblebee colonies are very short-lived and do not survive from year to year. The queen emerges from hibernation and founds a new colony: she needs to find food immediately, which in many cases comes from the daffodils and crocuses that are flowering this early in the year.
We will grow a larger meadow area this year, taking in the whole of the area to the North-East of the lych gate and above the path that runs by the Garden of Remembrance (which will continue to be cut short as before). A strip around one metre wide – a ‘managed margin’ - will be cut round the edge, for the convenience of those walking through the churchyard. Last autumn, cutting the meadow proved to be an arduous task, due in part to the number of anthills that had formed. This year, we hope to cut the area with scythes, but not aiming to flatten the anthills – which are, after all, the homes of other creatures that contribute to the overall ecology. Raking off the hay – essential to reduce the fertility of the soil so as to inhibit the growth of grasses – also proved an arduous task: if anyone would like to take advantage of the hay to feed sheep or other animals, we would be glad for any volunteers to come forward and help with this in the autumn.
Before writing this I’ve looked back at what I wrote a year ago, curious to find what I would see that is different. With the very changeable weather we’ve had this year – very cold and very hot spells alternating – it’s difficult to know where we are in the nature calendar and what to look out for from one day to the next.
We have a couple of new flowers that weren’t there before. Some stems of cuckooflower – also called Lady’s-smock – are showing their pale purple blooms. These have all appeared in the area that was mown last year, so hopefully will now be given the chance to spread in the shadier areas under the yew trees. These are the foodplant of the Orange-tip butterfly, which lays only one egg on each plant as the caterpillars are cannibals. What a way to behave in a churchyard! The small, unshowy flowers of Lesser Stitchwort are widely spread among the grass, and Ground-ivy is showing around some of the old tombstones.
Insects are appearing in greater numbers. Small White butterflies fly rapidly round the patch, while beeflies hover and dart through the air. Around one of the tombstones, a pair of mating craneflies flops feebly– not the large ones that appear later in the year and whose larvae are known to gardeners as leatherjackets, but smaller species. These feed on decaying leaf litter or in moss or decaying wood, so, gardeners, relax! Hoverflies are also present in abundance – don’t ask me which species as there are 281 of them. But gardeners can rejoice as their larvae feed on aphids, and they play an important role in pollination.
The churchyard will be one of the numbered gardens on the Fletching Garden Trail this year on the 10th June. Do please visit it, look closely and see how many flowers and insects you can spot.
“There’s only buttercups there” was the remark of a passer-by as I was surveying the churchyard this week. Indeed there are Creeping Buttercups in the sward, but these are by no means the only yellow flower at the moment. Two low-growing plants with small flowers are very similar: Tormentil has 4 petals – you can remember this because ‘Tor’ rhymes with ‘four’ – while Creeping Cinquefoil has 5. Taller flowers, growing individually on long stems, are Cat’s-ear, while the red-and-yellow striped buds of Mouse-ear-hawkweed are just beginning to open. Bird’s-foot-trefoil – commonly called Eggs and Bacon – flowers round the edge.
The small white flowers of Lesser Stitchwort carpet many areas of the sward, while daisies and White Clover are abundant. Encouragingly, Red Clover – a most important plant for pollinators – has spread since last year. Common Sorrel is there in abundance with its red seed heads, and the palette segues into purple with the emerging blooms of Selfheal.
Most encouraging is the spread of animal life into the area. Bumblebees are there in abundance, and the anthills – while not beloved of our mowers – push up bare ground which offers a fertile tilth for ‘early successional’ plants to grow – those that need space and would not take root in areas already dominated by coarser grasses. A Large White butterfly flits across the scene, while a few days earlier two Meadow Browns, in pristine condition so newly emerged from their chrysalises, were only three days after the first of these harbingers of summer were first sighted in the county.
As I prepare to leave, a bird call alerts me to the bright yellow wing bars of a Goldfinch as it flies over and lands on a tombstone. Perhaps this seed-eater is attracted by the growing smorgasbord now on offer. But what an appropriate bird to see: the bright blood-red of its face led to its association with Christ and the Crucifixion. It is this symbolism that may well explain the presence of Goldfinches in more than 500 medieval and Renaissance paintings, many of them depicting Mary and the infant Jesus.
But this isn’t the end of the story. In the last month I’ve been delighted to hear the ringing screams of swifts as they fly around over the churchyard. What they are doing of course as they fly is to eat the insects that are up to 1 km or more above the ground. Swifts are summer visitors which winter in South Africa: pairs stay together for life.
As the sun sets, bats can be seen foraging over the ground, again feeding on moths and other prey. A recent survey in our garden showed that there are 6 different species which forage here. Only one lives on the premises, but bats can fly several kilometres each night from their roost to their feeding area. But it’s heartening to know that the effects of our work on the ground extend well beyond the narrow confines of the area in which we are working.
The very hot weather that we have seen recently has meant that the natural progression of the season has been speeded up. The Buddleia bush in the meadow came into bloom and passed over in a matter of days, and other flowers are coming out similarly ahead of their usual time. By mid-August, expect many of the flowers to be over, and our management will then consist of waiting for the seed to ripen before the autumn cut.
But now we very much need rain. If the hot weather develops into a drought, the consequences could be catastrophic for butterflies as plants wither away and the next generation of butterfly caterpillars starve to death. Butterfly populations collapsed for this reason after the 1976 drought.
At the end of September, we will cut the grass and rake off the hay to reduce fertility. Two scythesmen are lined up to mow, and Nic Atwell has kindly offered to take away the hay to his farm. The exact timing will depend on the weather forecast for the end of the month. We need to dry the grass in dry weather and sun for up to a week to make the grass dry enough to become hay. So the grass should be cut when a week of dry weather looks possible. Ideally it’ll be turned with a rake to allow both sides to be dried.
If you’d be prepared to come along for an hour or two later in the month to help with the raking or turning, any help would be much appreciated. Please get in touch with me and we can firm up on times once we know the weather forecast. No particular skills needed, just a willingness to get stuck in along with some congenial company!
This observation in turn emphasises why it is important not to mow the grass too early in the autumn. Although there is a lot of longer grass in evidence, a walk through the area will reveal many flowers still in bloom below the top of the sward. Bird’s-foot trefoil, yarrow, hawk’s-beards and others such as Shasta daisies are still in bloom and are important sources of nectar for the insects.
In July, I feared that the long hot summer would lead to a drought later in the year. This in turn would mean that foodplants for the larvae of butterflies and other insects would be in short supply. This happened in 1976, so that after a summer in which insects were plentiful, the larvae hatched to find no food available for them. Consequently there was a population crash the following year. It appears that this year the rain we had around the end of July came just in time to allow new growth of foodplants. What has undoubtedly been a bumper year for butterflies has every chance of leading to a further wonderful year in 2019.
You may note that in my jottings I write more about butterflies than about other types of insect. This is partly because butterflies are more visible! But they are indicators of the health of the insect population as a whole – if butterflies are doing well, then it is likely that the environment is in a healthy state for other insects too. Experience this year suggests we have a very healthy environment in Fletching.
In April, the first month in which we’ve developed Meadow Areas in the churchyard, what has appeared so far?
At first glance there is what seems to be a lot of grass with dark coloured heads covering the ground. This is in fact not a grass but Meadow Woodrush. As you look closer, you will notice the upright blue spikes of Bugle, an important nectar source at this time of year when not much else is in flower. Deeper down in the grass are the flowers of Germander Speedwell, sky-blue with a white eye. Neither of these are showy plants, but then we’re not making a herbaceous border: insects find their food plants by smell as well as by sight and they will find them very easily.
Growing under some shady trees are the leaves and white flowers of Wild Strawberry, which later in the summer will bear their bright red fruits. And deeper in the shade are the shy yellow flowers of Sleeping Beauty. A relation of Wood-sorrel, this is not a native plant but was introduced in the 17th century: its origin is not known. Normally it starts to flower in June, but the warm weather in April has brought it on early this year. Another early bloomer is Mouse-ear-hawkweed. A member of the daisy family, it has bright yellow flowers on long stems. The leaves are white-felted below and green with scattered stiff long white hairs above: this and their size and shape give the plant its name. Close to the door of the church, there are patches of red clover, its pink-purple stipules full of sweet nectar.
Next month: An Orgy of Oxeyes. What other plants can you find in the grass, and what insects have you seen visiting them? Let me know!
Yes! The project now has a name. As the summer progresses, more and different plants and insects are appearing to show their appreciation of the area that has been set aside for them.
Much of the beauty of wildlife is apparent as you look closely. There are many yellow flowers in the grass which on first sight look like so many dandelions, but look carefully and you will see how different they all are, each with its own special appeal. Potentilla, buttercup, lesser yellow trefoil and coltsfoot are all there.
The oxeye daisies make a magnificent splash for those unwilling or unable to get down on hands and knees. It’s not just the open blooms that are so splendid: examine the buds and you’ll see the intricate lattice pattern that appears before the flower unfolds.
Mouse-eared hawkweed looks yellow when the bloom has opened, but underneath the bud you’ll find red stripes as cheerful as the awning on a circus tent. Common sorrel has a brownish haze from a distance, but come in closer to find the loose whorls of tiny, vivid magenta flowers opening along the stem.
As the air warms up, and more flowers appear, so do the insects that come to take advantage of this feast. The large, round furry bumble bees are joined by the smaller hoverflies and of course the honeybees – perhaps from a local hive who will sell Fletching honey, so that we all have the chance to share in the bounty of this secret store of treasure.
‘Go out into the highways and hedges’
Unlike the dinner party host in St Luke’s gospel, there is no need to compel wildlife to come to the dinner that has been laid on for them in our churchyard – as the summer develops ever more wild creatures take advantage of the feast. There are now too many flowers to attempt to list them all, but I was delighted to find a Small Copper basking on Common Sorrel – the foodplant on which this feisty, fiery orange butterfly lays its eggs. Less conspicuous, but more numerous, is the Meadow Brown. This rather bland-looking butterfly has one small white spot inside a larger black spot on its forewings: this distinguishes it from the Gatekeeper, which is smaller, brighter orange and has two white spots inside a black one.
Most people will recognise the vivid colours of the Red Admiral when they see one: less obvious are the many hoverflies that visit the flowers, while copper coloured Cardinal Beetles crawl over the pinkish-white and strongly scented heads of Yarrow.
The frothy, yellow flowers of Lady's Bedstraw, which is in flower outside the South porch door, scent the air with honey. The stems can carpet the grass with yellow from June to September. Dried, this
flower has the scent of new-mown hay, and its name is probably derived from the tradition of stuffing straw mattresses with it, particularly those of women about to give birth.
I am delighted that on Sunday September 3, Bishop Richard of Lewes will lead our All-Age Service (that’s a Family Service in old money), and will begin by blessing the Living Churchyard before the main part of the service begins.
As summer wears on, life plays out in microcosm. Two male Common Blue butterflies court a female in the grass: but she’s having nothing of it and eventually flies off to sit in the yew tree. The Meadow Brown – part of the very fabric of an English summer – is flitting low over the grass looking for a place to lay its eggs. A Speckled Wood butterfly follows the patches of sunlight. The buddleia bush plays host not only to numerous Red Admirals and a Large White, but also to honeybees, hoverflies and bumblebees, their large furry bodies covered with pollen grains so that they look as if they’ve just come back from a day on the beach. Overhead, a dragonfly jinks and turns in its never-ending search for smaller insects.
In anticipation of next season, I’ve sown – with the help of Churchwarden Gillie Cuppage – some yellow rattle. This annual flower grows as a parasite on grass, weakening its growth, so allowing room for the more delicate wild flowers to flourish. To ensure local provenance, this seed was gathered from grassland on the South Downs, under a permit kindly granted by Natural England. It is sown before the winter as the seed needs a prolonged cold period if it is to germinate.
The Garden of Remembrance, the area of ground running under the yew trees to the East and West of the lych gate, has been strimmed as part of the normal churchyard maintenance, and I’m grateful to David and Tom Croft for the trouble they’re taking to make this new maintenance scheme work. Many of the memorial tablets in this area are lovingly maintained by relations of the deceased, but in some cases this is not possible because people have moved away from the parish. Andrew Keith has kindly volunteered to undertake detailed maintenance in this area to ensure that all the tablets are tidy and clear of debris. This will need to be done on a regular basis over the years: if anyone would like to assist with this work please do get in touch with Andrew, telephone 01825 722646.
“I, Nature, stand, and call to you though you heed not: Have
courage, come forth, O child of mine, that you may see me.
I am the ground; I listen the sound of your feet. They come
nearer. I shut my eyes and feel their tread over my face.
I am the trees; I reach downward my long arms and touch you,
though you heed not, with enamored fingers; my leaves and
zigzag branches write wonderful words against the evening sky
- for you, for you - say, can you not even spell them?”
‘Towards Democracy’, Edward Carpenter, 1881
Edward Carpenter’s epic poem was considered by iconic landscape photographer Ansel Adams to have been the inspiration for his work, which in turn led to the founding of the system of National Parks in the United States.
In our churchyard, much is happening that we heed not. Flowers may appear to have died, but have courage and come forth and you will see next year’s seed forming. The bright yellow flowers of Bird’s-foot-trefoil are giving way to pods, their strange angular shape giving rise to the common name of this plant. The dense spikes of red berries of Lords-and-Ladies (Cuckoo-pint) glow under the darkness of a yew tree. Yarrow, Lady’s Bedstraw and Red Clover flower into the autumn, while hawkweeds decorate the grass with their yellow flowers. Shasta Daisies, which look like Oxeye Daisies but flower later in the year, and Evening Primrose add further touches of colour and a continuing source of nectar for pollinators.
Most insects have laid their eggs, mostly too small to see even with a magnifying glass, but they are there and again, next year, we will see proof of that. On mild days, queen bumblebees can be seen flying low over the grass, looking for a suitable site in which to spend the winter.
It was humbling that this project should have been blessed by Bishop Richard when he presided at our morning service on 3rd September.
And so to bed…
As the leaves turn on the trees, so the last flowers in the meadow area give out a final touch of colour. Yarrow, Herb-Robert and Black Medick still show tiny patches of flower to those who will look closely. Daddy long-legs flutter feebly about the vegetation laying their eggs at the end of their short adult life. Most other insects are by now sensibly hunkered down as eggs or larvae, depending on their particular life cycle, to survive the ravages of winter.
By the time you read this article, the grass in the meadow area will have been cut short and the hay raked off. This stops it from composting into the soil and so increasing fertility. This is necessary
because low fertility favours the growth of plants which would otherwise be swamped out by the grasses, which grow when the soil is more fertile.
As with other forms of life around us, your correspondent is now also going into hibernation and the next article on the Living Churchyard will appear in the May issue of the magazine.