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.
Aside from the ‘mushrooms’ and ‘toadstools’ that we can all see, fungi produce hyphae – fine underground tubular structures that branch and tangle into an anarchic filigree and form relationships with many plants. Over 90% of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi – as many gardeners will know. Plants have relied on fungi for nutrition and defence for as long as there have been plants. They depend on fungi to provide them with nutrients from the soil such as phosphorus or nitrogen, in exchange for energy-giving sugars and lipids produced in photosynthesis.
But it is not only plants that depend on other species for their survival. Cows can’t digest grass on their own – it is the bacteria in their gut that break it down into a form which they can use. Other animals, humans included, also depend on outside help: there are more microbes in your gut than stars in our galaxy.
In his recently published review ‘The Economics of Biodiversity’, Cambridge Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta emphasises that our demands on Nature far exceed its capacity to supply. He warns that if we reduce biodiversity, Nature and humanity suffer.
Sir David Attenborough introduces this report by saying ‘We are destroying biodiversity, the very characteristic that until recently enabled the natural world to flourish so abundantly. If we continue this damage, whole ecosystems will collapse. That is now a real risk.’ He offers a 10-minute tip for reconnecting with Nature: just naturally stop. “Sit down. Don’t move. Keep quiet. Wait ten minutes. You’ll be very surprised if something pretty interesting didn’t happen within ten minutes.”
I hope you may all find the chance to stop for ten minutes in the wonderful surroundings of Fletching Churchyard.
In early April a cold East wind sears the churchyard. Most wildlife is sensibly still hunkered down. A Bumblebee quarters the ground looking for a hole in which to make its nest. Some Dandelions and Red Dead Nettle are in bloom. It is difficult to imagine how different the picture will be by the time this reaches you in May. The painter David Hockney describes the time when hawthorn blossom is throwing creamy sprays across country lanes as his ‘action week’: he has to rise at dawn every day to catch it all on canvas. But so much is now changing so quickly at this time of year that perhaps every week should be our ‘action week’.
We take for granted that Spring will arrive, that the universe will continue its natural cycle of vitality and decline - youthfulness, exuberance, maturity and senescence - that apply to all living things.
Should we? As early as 1898, Dr Astrov in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya was preoccupied with the destruction of forests in one of the first mentions of ecological problems in world literature. Only now, over a hundred years later, do we fully appreciate what destruction we are bringing on our natural world and the urgency of taking action to reverse this.
Suddenly, the roo-cooing of the pigeons and the trilling of a wren are interrupted by a loud burst of clapping from the schoolyard. The children are holding an Easter bonnet parade and applauding each other’s efforts. Oh Happy Fletching! How lucky our children are to be brought up in such a beautiful place. How much we must value it and hold it in trust for their children and their children’s children too.
These are in fact solitary bees, belonging to a group known as mining bees. Look closely at the ground and you can see the entrances to their nests, holes in the ground with a small mound of excavated sandy soil around each. Their burrows may be up to 60cm deep. Although there is a large aggregation of nests, these are technically solitary with no evidence of cooperative social behaviour. They don’t produce honey or have queens. Because they have no communal nest to defend, they are not aggressive. Although the females have a sting – the males don’t – it is usually too weak to penetrate skin.
The bees are nesting in that particular place because there is a sloping bank of light soil. But, like other insects, they need nectar to feed on and are important contributors to pollination. There were still several flowers in bloom in the meadow area – I counted 8 different species – and in the warm weather at the end of September there was still much insect life in evidence. The Small Copper butterflies were feeding on the last of the yarrow. Within the grass Daddy long-legs flopped about. One got tangled in a spider web: as I watched, the spider rushed out to seize its prey. A ferocious struggle ensued, worthy of any David Attenborough documentary. After about 5 minutes, the Daddy long-legs escaped. Sorry, spiderlings, no dinner tonight – it got away.
I was expecting that we would cut the grass around the end of September. Given the extent of blooming flowers and continuing insect life, the cut has been delayed until activity has slowed down. After four years of targeted management, it is encouraging to see the impact this has had on the extent of wildlife to be seen. I look forward to reporting further on our progress in the spring.
Insects are there in ever increasing numbers. Flies, bees and wasps abound, and inspection reveals that many are solitary species - not all are social such as honeybees or bumblebees that build communal nests. Butterflies are perhaps the most visible – Large Whites fly around at great speed, and Small Coppers nectar on yarrow. This has white flowers, whereas some say that this butterfly prefers yellow. But perhaps this is because there is so much yarrow? When I spent time watching them, they flitted quickly from bloom to bloom of yarrow, spending only a few moments on each. But one then found a yellow potentilla in the grass and dropped onto it for a long feed, ignoring all my antics with a camera as it probed the bloom with its proboscis. The caterpillars of this butterfly feed on sorrel, which is abundantly present in the churchyard; they are almost certainly breeding here.
There is evidence on the paths that a fox has visited on more than one occasion. What brought it here in the first place, and why did it come back? Almost certainly that it has found something to feed on. Most people regard foxes as carnivores, but in fact they are omnivores, which means that they will eat just about anything that they can find. In the autumn, this includes insects, such as caterpillars, crickets and grasshoppers, and also worms, fruits, vegetables and seeds. The churchyard must now provide a banquet for it at this time of year.
Finally, a huge thank you to all those who have helped cut and rake the churchyard. This year the grass has really been knocked back, leaving room for other flowers to grow, and this is indeed reflected in the abundance of life that is present.
Given the heat wave that we’re enjoying as I write, I had half expected to find palm trees sprouting in the ground. Well I didn’t but the flowers that are there are encouraging an ever-wider diversity of insect life. Bird’s-foot trefoil, a yellow-flowered member of the pea family, is starting to set seed: the seed pods have three branches that spread out like a bird’s foot, which gives the plant its name. It is an important source of nectar for a wide range of insects. On my last visit, there were a number of different butterflies on the wing, some small slender moths (a Common Footman I believe – its larvae feed on lichens, so plenty of food for it on the old gravestones), and different species of bees. Honeybees and bumblebees look easy to recognise, but not everything is what it seems: there are hoverflies there that look like small bumblebees, and several of these were nectaring on the flowers.
And the summer birds are still there: the background bass notes of the woodpigeon are complemented by the twitter of a large flock of martins overhead, and the urgent scream of swifts. How lucky to have these birds in Fletching, as their numbers nationally are showing an alarming decline.
The area that we cut at the end of June is already growing out well and showing perhaps a wider range of flowers than the uncut area. Thanks to all those who helped with this. The next cutting and raking will be at the end of September. I’ve already received offers of help with this, but if anyone else would like to become involved, you’d be very welcome.
The colours of the flowers are set off by the beauty of other wildlife. The Small Copper, considered by some to be Britain’s most beautiful butterfly, was there today, as were among others the Red Admiral, the Common Blue, and a Small Tortoiseshell. This butterfly has seen a considerable drop in abundance over recent years, so it’s all the more rewarding to find that we have given one a home.
We saw some numbers of the Meadow Brown, a warm brown butterfly. On the forewing, there is a black spot, in the middle of which is a smaller white spot. Also flying at the moment is the Gatekeeper. It’s similar to the Meadow Brown, but a little smaller and a brighter orange. It too has a black spot on the forewing, but in the middle of that there are two white spots. If you want to practise your identification skills, why not take advantage of the summer holidays to spend 15 minutes with the Big Butterfly Count – there is an ID chart to help you at bigbutterflycount.butterfly-conservation.org
Thanks to Hugh and Gabriella Bullock who joined me today to cut the grass. And also to Jamie Buchanan, for his help with the raking up of the hay. This is necessary to ensure that the fertility of the soil is reduced, so inhibiting the grasses and leaving more space for the wild flowers to grow. We have cut half now: the whole area will be cut again in September. Any volunteers to help then most welcome!
and then the whole plot will be cut at the end of September. Each time, the hay will be removed in order to reduce fertility, so that coarse grasses are denied the chance to grow out and swamp the less aggressive wild flowers. If anyone would like to volunteer to help cut the grass and/or rake the hay, now or in September, I’d be very pleased to hear from you!
In spite of the sorrel, the number of other plants continues to increase. I counted 15 in flower this month, one up on last month’s tally of 14. Many of the flowers are spreading, such as Red Clover, a valuable source of nectar for many insects: while a Common Knapweed gives a dramatic splash of purple.
There is growing recognition that healthy humans depend on a healthy environment. Research on the links between the environment and wellbeing continues to expand. There have been numerous publications and literature reviews in this policy area. Standout references come from DEFRA, the Wildlife Trusts and
Natural England. The number of rewilding projects continues to grow across Sussex as people realise the benefits this can bring, not only to wildlife but to us humans as well. If you’re feeling frustrated, bored or simply antsy as a result of the ongoing lockdown, be kind to yourself: take time to rest for a few moments in the churchyard and enjoy the peace that is there
How dramatically is this illustrated in our churchyard! We are just entering the third year of managing this area for biodiversity, and already the difference between this and the mown areas is striking. In early May, I counted no less than 14 different flowers in bloom, including some striking patches of Germander Speedwell whose sky-blue colour contrasted with the yellow lichen on the gravestones. Large White and Orange-tip butterflies flew past me, while micro-moths, bumblebees, solitary bees and many other insects fed on nectar in the blooms. With the relative absence of traffic, the bird song resounded. A patch of feathers on the ground suggested that one bird had been subject to Nature’s recycling: while a number of owl pellets in different areas gave a clue as to the possible perpetrator of this deed.
This year, paths have been mown to allow access to a greater part of the area. There is one that runs East-West and another that runs North-South. Do take the time to walk these and explore. There is plenty of room to allow social distancing, and you will probably see many things that I have missed. Other people have commented to me that they enjoy simply sitting on one of the benches in front of the church and watching the scene unfold.
As our lives and our concerns come to be dominated by the pandemic, it is easy to forget that we face other challenges. Successive international reports have warned that the current high rates of loss of biodiversity pose a major risk to our economies and our way of life. Take heart from the success of the one small step we have been able to take in Fletching.
If you can include the churchyard on your permitted daily exercise, pause for a few moments and watch carefully what is going on around you. A pair of Pied Wagtails perches on a tombstone, occasionally flying off and picking up some small insect before returning to its perch, tail flicking up and down. You didn’t see the insect? No, but it was there – the wagtail spotted it. And a couple of robins nearby are clearly finding something to eat in the ground. Elsewhere, a large bumblebee is flying low, exploring small holes in the moss as possible nest sites. What made the holes? A vole perhaps? Most British mammals are both nocturnal and shy, so don’t expect to see them, but they are there all the same. The ground is now dotted with anthills. You may not see the ants, but as they disturb the soil, so they create mounds of bare earth, nurseries for flowers that would otherwise be crowded out by the more aggressive grasses.
And while you’re there, listen as well as look. With so much less traffic on the roads, the birdsong is overwhelming: and you don’t have to get up at dawn to hear it. A pair of blackbirds runs around the area: the female – who is a mottled, sooty brown colour and doesn’t have a yellow bill - is picking up bits of dead grass. As I watch, her beak looks full and yet, before flying off to where she’s building her nest, she keeps on stuffing ever more in. She clearly wasn’t brought up at court!
The Peacock is one of five species of butterfly that overwinter as adults. Others adopt a range of different strategies: some overwinter as eggs, some as caterpillars and some as pupae. Those that do so as adults are often to be seen flying during the winter months – indeed, the Red Admiral can be seen on the wing in any month of the year. A warmer day tempts them to come out of whatever sheltered spot they have chosen, to which they retreat back when the weather grows colder again. So, out of doors, our Peacock will hopefully have found somewhere to rest during the cold spells. Had it remained in the church, then there would have been no nectar for it to feed on, and no chance of getting outside on its own: it would surely have died of starvation.
Nectar sources are particularly important for insects at this early stage in spring. There aren’t very many plants in flower at this time of year, so those that are assume an importance greater than that to which they might aspire later in the summer. Dandelions in the churchyard are host to solitary bees and bumble bees, as these insects take to the wing and look for crevices in brickwork or other places to make their nests. Humble daisies and the small blue flowers of germander speedwell may well be overlooked by us humans from our great height, but to the hungry insect they are the key to survival. Many of you will already have noticed butterflies such as the Holly Blue on the holly or ivy in your garden, or males of the cream-and-brown Speckled Wood fighting for territory in small patches of sunshine and warmth as the sun moves round.
Let us praise biodiversity in all its forms.
But suddenly it’s failed to follow the script. Well actually it has: English weather is notoriously variable and we have to learn to enjoy the cooler days as well as the warmer. Nature doesn’t give up: there are flowers visible in the churchyard, but small and discrete and hidden away. The dark purple-blue spikes of Bugle poke up around the gravestones, while the sky blue of germander speedwell is there to see if you walk over the ground and look closely. Dandelions have gone to seed, with the nectar-giving flowers that feed insects giving way to the seed heads that delight birds. The pale purple of Ladies-smock – food plant for the orange-tip butterfly - has spread across the area, while the ox-eye daisies are showing a profusion of buds that promise a wonderful display in the weeks to come.
Down in the grass, there are rosettes of emerging plants which will come into bloom later in the year – by the time this article comes into print the weather may well have changed again and you will have forgotten that it was ever cold. As the grass is further weakened by the way in which it has been cut in the last years, so we see more and more other plants growing there and promising us a wonderful display as summer goes on.
And as the variety of plants grows, so will the insects that feed on them and the birds that feed on the insects. What can you see in the churchyard? I invite you all to spend some quiet time there looking and reflecting. I’m sure you’ll be surprised at how much you find.
There are many different flowers in bloom as I write. Many of them are yellow and it is tempting to dismiss these all as dandelions or buttercups. But there are hawkbits, hawkweeds, birds-foot trefoil, and many others of many colours – I counted 14 different species in flower today. They may look similar to us humans, but to insects and pollinators they all have their differences – I watched a red-tailed bumblebee flying round the area and homing in every time on the yellow flowers of creeping cinquefoil, ignoring all the other similar flowers nearby. Why? Well I don’t like spinach so why shouldn’t insects be similarly fussy? This is indeed the reason why some species are in decline – they will only feed and breed on a limited range of plants, and as these are extinguished, so are the insects that depend on them. And it is heartening to see how the plants are increasing in number year on year – particularly the small patch of red clover, a most important source of nectar, by the main church door.
In spite of the cold, wet spell as I write, there are several different insects on the wing. Solitary bees hover over plants while making up their mind as to which one they like. I can’t tell you how many different species are there: Britain has over 270 species of bee, and bumblebees and the honey bee account for only about one tenth of that figure. Small micro moths fly low among the grass, which in turn is now criss-crossed by a network of tracks made by small mammals – probably voles. There are several holes, which mark the entrances to where they live. Like most of the UK mammals, they are most active by night, when human beings, raptors and other predators are asleep. I feel as if I’m only telling you half the story…
Recent warm weather has brought an exponential increase in the number of plants and insects that are on show at the moment. There is a rainbow of flowers in bloom – Farmers’ Weekly yellow trefoils have spread over the area that was newly cut last year, while the frothy creamy yellow of Lady’s Bedstraw contrasts with the deep purple of knapweed and fills our nostrils with its delicate perfume. The white heads of yarrow are covered with the bright orange-and-black-tipped bodies of the Common Red Soldier Beetle. Meadow Brown butterflies – part of the fabric of an English summer – are joined by the brighter golden-orange of both Large and Small skippers. The Large Skipper lays its eggs on cocksfoot grass, while the Small uses Yorkshire Fog, whose pinkish-purple tinge colours the Eastern end of the area. Both these skippers like tall clumps of native coarse grasses. Active in hot weather, they divide their time between feeding and locating females.
Look more closely still and there is yet more to see. Flies abound – not just the housefly that many people find so irritating, but also others of the UK’s 7063 species, important pollinators and eaters of aphids – as do bees, grasshoppers and many small white micro-moths. And while you’re looking, keep your ears open for the birdsong that provides the operatic chorus to the visual spectacle on the ground.
When I’m out in the field looking at wildlife, people often stop and ask what I’m watching. The next question is ‘Is it rare?’ When I say ‘no’ – because it very often isn’t – the response is usually a disappointed ‘Oh’ and my questioner walks away. But as climate change, perhaps better called ‘climate crisis’, takes an ever increasing toll on the number of species we can see in the wild, today’s commonplace will become tomorrow’s rarities. The more we can fight the unholy alliance between strimmer and maintenance contract, the more we shall keep wonderful places like Fletching Churchyard alive for us all to enjoy.
This butterfly is not typically seen in gardens, but prefers ‘unimproved grassland’ such as we now have in the churchyard. Its caterpillars mainly feed on the wildflower, Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil, which is plentiful in the uncut area of the churchyard.
Another common butterfly to be seen here is the Gatekeeper. This is superficially similar to the Meadow Brown, but is smaller and a brighter orange. Each of these species has a black spot on the underwing: but whereas the Meadow Brown has one small white spot in the middle of the black spot, the Gatekeeper has two. All you need is a sharp pair of eyes!
2019 is proving to be a ‘Painted Lady summer’. Once in a decade or so, millions of these butterflies arrive en masse. This is a common immigrant that migrates in varying numbers to the UK each summer, where its caterpillars feed on thistles. It is quite a large butterfly, with wings that are a beautiful fresh salmon pink which fades to orange-brown with spotted black tips. In just two days in July, more than 30,000 individual insects were counted across the UK. Some are thought to come from Scandinavia and the Netherlands, while others along the South Coast are thought to have come direct from Africa. They may stop and breed here, or they may carry on Northwards – we saw a swarm of them in Shetland earlier this year. Their offspring sensibly head South again for the winter.
As this season ends, we still have yarrow, bird’s foot trefoil and several different hawkweeds in flower. The buddleia bush has put on a remarkable late spurt of growth: go close to it and sniff and its honeyed scent still fills the air. When little else is out, this is a vital source of nectar for insects, as witnessed by the honeybees and solitary bees that are taking advantage of this late season crop. A single Large White butterfly flits around the yard, and several different micro-moths flutter low down among the grass. A Daddy-long-legs flops among the stems. Many of the plants are now bearing seed: this is almost all ripe as we come into September, and the late cutting of the grass will allow this to fall to the ground and start the process of regeneration that will come to pass next summer.
Walk over the area, and you will be struck by the large number of soft springy anthills that are to be found. You may not see the ants: but their work in turning up the soil is a vital contribution to aerating the ground. This in turn creates a more favourable environment, bare soil on which the plant seeds can germinate and grow without being swamped out by coarser grasses, and a much lighter soil structure which allows earthworms and other creatures to thrive.
And so the stage is set for next year’s performance to begin.
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.
As I gave the area a final cut of the year, it was apparent that many creatures are still making their home here. Craneflies flop lazily among the grass, while solitary bees nectar on the remaining flowers– yarrow in particular is still very much in evidence. The last Large White butterfly flits rapidly across the area. In a damp corner under the yew trees, there is a small colony of waxcaps – small toadstools with a waxy cap, brightly coloured red on top with reddish-orange gills. Not edible by us humans, but other wildlife eats them so they form the start of a foodchain which supports other life forms in the area.
I’m most grateful to all those who have given help and support to this project during the course of the year. Father Brian and the church wardens have been most encouraging. Catherine Murphy has kindly given me a packet of Yellow Rattle seed which I shall shortly sow to reduce the vigour of the grass next year – the seed I sowed last year appeared to have a crop failure as I only saw one plant. Hopefully a better harvest next year! Nic and Rollo Attwell have given great help in cutting the grass and collecting the hay. And of course to Gabriella and Mary for including my musings in the magazine.
As we enter the season of dormancy, this will be my last report this year and I look forward to writing about new developments as soon as spring wakes us all from our winter slumber.
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.