Churchyard Wildlife

Churchyards can be surprisingly rich in nature, and many of the plants, fungi, and animals found within a churchyard predate the church buildings and help identify the timelessness of these places and the consistent management they have received year after year.

Take a look at the trees, particularly the ancients and veterans. Look out for stonework covered in lichens, which may have taken centuries to grow and the turf of a churchyard, which may well be the flowery, meadow grassland of our past. Insects, small mammals and birds can be found feeding within this flowery grassland and in the autumn, grassland fungi such as waxcaps and spindles make a colourful show.

Invertebrates, butterflies, moths, spiders, beetles, snails and bees can be found, as well as larger animals such as slow worms, lizards, frogs, toads and newts, hedgehogs, mice and voles.

It is the combination of all the features that make churchyards so special. There are growing, feeding, nesting, roosting, and hibernating places for plants, animals, birds, fungi, and lichens, and we are still learning about how good they are for biodiversity.

Welcoming Nature

Use the interactive image to discover ways to help develop the wildlife in your churchyard.

The sections below contain details on Grassland, Trees , Boundaries, Birds, Bats, Lichens, and Ways to Help nurture wildlife

Grassland ​

Flowery grasslands, with their breathtaking beauty and buzz of wildlife, have almost vanished from our countryside. Once commonplace, now only fragments remain. Churchyards are sometimes the last refuge for this wonderful but increasingly rare habitat as they have escaped the developer, the plough, the spraying of herbicides and the regular application of fertilisers. This habitat provides pollen and nectar for a wide variety of invertebrate species and supports the birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals that feed on them. Look for rare grassland fungi such as waxcaps and spindles in the autumn.

Grasslands are vital in carbon storage, housing up to 30% of the world's carbon, so it is crucial to understand their importance and take care of them.

Churchyard - Grassland

 

3 ways to help:
If your churchyard suffers from anti-social behaviour

Trees

Churchyards are a true haven for veteran trees, particularly the oldest trees in Britain, the ancient and veteran yews. Individual yew trees may predate Christianity, with some trees believed to be several thousand years old. There are about 800 ancient and veteran yews in the churchyards of England and Wales, which make up three-quarters of the British population. No other country has such a magnificent collection of these trees.

As well as veterans, churchyards contain a range of other trees, many of which were planted during Victorian times and are now mature. Trees, old and young, give shelter, food, nesting and roosting sites to birds, bats, small mammals and a wide range of invertebrates. An oak tree can hold over 2,000 species.

If you are considering tree felling, arboricultural work, or planting new trees within a churchyard, please check the faculty regulations first. 

 

Churchyard - Trees

 

3 ways to help
If your churchyard suffers from anti-social behaviour
To find out more

Boundaries  ​

Many churchyards are enclosed by drystone or lime mortar walls or historic hedges.

Historic walls have a rich mixture of colours and textures reflecting the stone and the plants, ferns, mosses and lichens that have colonised the wall for hundreds of years. These walls often serve as habitats for various animals, including slow worms, frogs, toads, and newts, which may overwinter within the crevices. Furthermore, walls host a rich array of invertebrates, serving as a food source for birds like wrens and dunnocks. While ivy may sometimes cover walls, shading out ferns and lichens, it also provides a suitable habitat and may even hold the wall up if it is well established, so be careful if you remove it. 

Hedges are an important habitat for various plant and animal species and a cherished feature of our countryside. Well-managed hedges have a higher concentration of wildlife than almost any other British habitat.

 

Churchyard - Boundary

 

3 ways to help

Birds​

Many bird species make churchyards their home, from summer visitors such as spotted flycatchers to the winter thrushes that feast on the berry-like fruits of yew trees. The matrix of different habitats, including veteran trees, old hedgerows, stone walls, ivy and meadows, offers different roosting, nesting and feeding opportunities to support a number of British birds, including many declining species. 

Swifts, in particular, nest on church buildings, and over the past 20 years, the number of this amazing and beautiful bird has dropped by about 57%, leading to their addition to the red list of species most at risk. Renovation of buildings to make them more energy-efficient and watertight has removed many nesting places, and reductions in the number of insects may also have taken a toll. All wild birds, their eggs, and nests are protected by law, but unlike many other species, swift nests are hard to spot as the adults rarely visit the nest, and there is almost no mess beneath nesting swifts. Knowing if swifts are nesting in or near your church is vital if you plan any work on the roof, as scaffolding in summer will block off swift nesting sites, preventing birds from nesting and potentially breaking the law. If you know in advance that they are there, you can schedule work around their short breeding season.

 

Common Swift nestlings in nest box

 

3 ways to help
If your churchyard suffers from anti-social behaviour

Bats ​

Bats are closely associated with churches and churchyards, and it is thought that of the 18 species of bat in the UK, eight are known to use cavities and crevices in church buildings for roosting and hibernation. These include some less common species, such as the Natterers and serotine bats. As well as using buildings, bats also roost in large trees, using cracks, crevices and gaps behind patches of loose bark. Churches and churchyards can be brilliant for bats, providing nesting and roosting places and abundant food such as moths.  This effect is further enhanced when churchyards are linked to wider natural habitat 'corridors' such as rivers, woodland and hedgerows. 

Close up of the back of a bat with its wings spread out

 

4 ways to help

Lichens ​

Churchyards and burial grounds are essential for lichen conservation, particularly in parts of the country with no natural outcrops of rock. Out of approximately 2,000 UK lichen species, over 700 have been found in churchyards, and almost half of these are rare and seldom, if ever, occur in other places. Many churchyards have well over 100 species of lichen in them. They can be thought of as lichen sanctuaries.

Lichen covered gravestone, Selmeston churchyard

 

3 ways to help

Ways to help

In addition to enhancing the nature-friendly features within a churchyard, you can actively encourage wildlife. This can be an engaging way to involve your local community, particularly children, by making bug or bee hotels and bat and bird boxes.

Compost and deadwood piles provide a place for organic waste. They are great for wildlife, providing nesting, hibernating and foraging opportunities for creatures such as slow worms, frogs, voles and hedgehogs. Most churchyards contain stonecrops that have arrived naturally, so consider moving their clumps onto gravelled surfaces that are not regularly used. In addition to looking beautiful, native bulbs will attract a range of pollinators, particularly the early flowering varieties, which supply nectar and pollen to insects emerging from hibernation. In grassed areas, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) could be planted; under shade, bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), wood anemones (Anemonoides nemorosa), lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) will thrive; and in lime-rich soils, wild garlic (Allium ursinum) will flourish.

3 ways to help
If your church suffers from antisocial behaviour

Welcoming People

Churchyard - Welcoming People

When making your churchyard more nature-friendly, it is essential to involve your local community and ensure that it remains welcoming and accessible to all. These five steps can help to reduce issues regarding expectations of how a churchyard should be managed and foster involvement and engagement with neighbours and visitors. 

  1. Make a plan  - Create a management plan based on the guidance provided by Caring for God's Acre (Caring for God's Acre Management Plan Advise). The plan should include a simple, map-based layout with a timetable of tasks that everyone can participate in.
  2. Keep short or medium-length mown grass in key areas -  Mow regularly around the church building, a strip on either side of surfaced paths, and where there are current graves and war graves. Mow meandering paths through any meadow areas. Collect the grass cuttings when you mow. This is good for wildflowers and makes the churchyard look neat and tidy. 
  3. Put up explanatory notices - Let people know what you are doing whenever you can. Put a temporary notice by your meadow area explaining why it is unmown and when it will be cut. An example is here. Consider pinning up your management map in the porch, putting it onto your website, writing articles for your parish magazine, and speaking to the local papers or radio. Always invite people to share their views, get involved, and help!
  4. Join in with Churches Count on Nature during Love Your Burial Ground Week  - Please join in with this national initiative. Taking place in the second week of June, it is a great time to show off your lovely churchyard, get together and celebrate all you've achieved. Register your event and use the resources you'll find to help make the event run smoothly. 
  5. Encourage recording of wildlife - Display a list of wildlife seen on notice boards and ask visitors to note anything they see, encouraging them to make a biological record. Please try our system for recording using iNaturalist. Begin with simple observations such as a holly tree, magpie or squirrel. This activity is particularly enjoyable for children and rewarding for everyone involved as the churchyard's wildlife records accumulate.
     

Discover and Record

Churchyard - Discover and Record

Because burial grounds have been relatively undisturbed for years, sometimes centuries, their plant and animal life is often rich and diverse. The charity Caring for God’s Acre encourages visitors to record species they encounter in their churchyards. These records can then be added to a database that will be accessible to all and will build up a national picture of what has been seen, when, and how frequently. 


All records, even those of common plants, birds, or other wildlife, are useful as they help monitor the rise or decline of species over a given time. Making a record is simple; there are just four things to make note of:

  • Who – the recorder’s full name
  • What – the common (or scientific) name of the species you round (e.g. swift, ladybird, daisy)
  • Where -the name, address and/or grid reference for the site you visited
  • When – the day, month and year

The easiest way to record is using the free iNaturalist app, which uses photos taken on a smartphone or tablet and helps you identify what you see and makes a record. 


Watch

A step-by-step guide on using iNaturalist.
A short video for information on how recording works
A short video on why records are so valuable for understanding the importance of churchyards. 

You can check out some of the previously recorded species in your churchyard by searching here: NBN Atlas Beautiful Burial Grounds. This system is new and is gradually building up; please don’t be disheartened if there are no records yet for your churchyard. New records can also take a few years to reach the database, so please be patient if you have recently started submitting records yourself.
 

Advice and Support

Churchyard - Advise and Support

 

There are many places to seek information, and there are organisations that can support you and offer advice.

The links below provide useful resources 

General Support and Advice

Why not make a start on the Eco Church awards

A conservation charity specifically for churchyards, chapel yards and cemeteries

Record what is in your churchyard

A network of county and regional wildlife trusts work to protect and restore nature

Veteran and Ancient yews

A range of resources and information

Search their map for ancient tree locations

Ancient trees of all species mapped

Grassland wildflowers

A range of resources and information

Useful for getting started and for events

Take part in No Mow May

Grassland Fungi

Lichens

A range of resources and information

A society set up to provide advice

Includes a chart on Churchyard Lichens

Slow worms

A range of resources and information
 

Useful resources and information

Find a group local to you

Hedgehogs 

A useful article written by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society

Helpful information, including what to do with sick or injured hedgehogs

Moths, Butterflies and Bees
 

Useful information including identification of bumblebees and how to help pollinators

Swifts

National leaders in swift conservation

A range of swift boxes available

Bats

Have a look at the Bats in Churches challenge badge for children

Has local groups, as well as useful resources and advice