Nature 2013 August

The Hidden Natural History of an English Churchyard

On a recent visit to St Lawrence’s churchyard I was, once again, reminded that graveyards, typically tucked away from the hurly-burly of daily life, and are places for tranquil repose. However, looking closer they are also important habitats for our local wildlife. As places that are treasured by us, and with so much care lovingly bestowed on them, ensuring continuity over time also provide vital refuges for plants and animals. What’s more this sympathetic approach to the small estates around parish churches is long-standing consequently these habitats have been protected, sometimes over many hundreds of years, from the influences experienced beyond their boundaries as a village community evolved. Bearing in mind that many of the nature reserves around us, quite often reclaimed sites, have not had the benefit over such long periods of care. Church wardens and others who look after these oases of calm have learnt to strike a balance between the levels of tidiness needed to be respectful, and the informality that is inevitable and pragmatic when adjacent to the semi-wilderness ever-encroaching from across its boundaries.

I am reminded at this point of the Old-English folk song “Who Killed Cock Robin”. It’s interesting how several of the characters (including several birds) in this melodrama are imbued with sepulchral overtones. An owl is digging a grave with pick and shovel whilst the thrush offered to sing the psalm. Typecast is the rook depicted as the parson (equipped with his bell and book). It is perhaps no surprise also that many of the early naturalists were also clergymen. We know that Charles Darwin who, after giving up studying medicine at Edinburgh was set to become ‘a man of the cloth’, spent much of his spare time in the 1828-31 at Cambridge in the company of his theological friends, riding and fishing and pursuing one of the fads of the day beetle-hunting. Half a century earlier Gilbert White fits the mold of naturalist-clergyman to perfection. He is revered for his studies of the interaction between animals and with plants, and is considered the first ecologist. His influential commentaries on nature written during his time as curate at Selbourne, took the form of letters to his friends and diaries of events: from chronologies of year on year events to hourly observations at different times of the day. He amassed such observations in minute detail, ranging from the importance and activities of earthworms, to the habits and wanderings of his pet tortoise.

I mention this as we can adopt such a similar approach today. For instance, I made my visit on a humid summer’s day, in the late afternoon. The beginnings and ends of days are when wildlife is often most active. Standing still a while and soon the blackbirds resumed their methodical search across moist lawns for worms interrupted by bouts of synchronous serenading at the top of a beech. A pair of robins attempt to intimidate each other atop some neighbouring headstones, the winner taking the spoils from some recently broken ground lying between their respective ‘lists’. A song thrush seeks a slug, or perhaps a woodlouse, by methodically stirring through the grass heaped on the compost.

Meanwhile, approaching a shaded corner I could hear the beech leaves, rustling around me. Beneath the deep carpet of last year’s leaves I concluded there must be several small rodents, perhaps shrews or field mice, foraging for invertebrates and seeds. I soon discovered that I was not alone in observing this frantic activity. I heard someone comment recently that with the wealth of television documentaries on wildlife from all round the world one can sometimes become more familiar with the lives and habits of a black mamba in the Amazon Basin or a cobra in northern India than say their home grown relatives living almost totally unnoticed in our back yards. Just a matter of a foot or two away from me I saw some dull lime-green interspersed with shades of grey and the unmistakable serpentine shape. Seemingly untroubled by my presence a motionless grass snake, around 18 inches long, was clearly alert to the disturbance beneath it a matter of inches away. A moment later it disappeared beneath the leaves but whether it found its prey soon after I cannot confirm.

Magnified water bear

So far what has been described is the wildlife engaged in the most frantic of activity. Graveyards are also home to those living in the slow lane. Lichens are a combination of a fungus and one or more species of algae that live in symbiotic harmony with each other. The algae provides much of the food supply through photosynthesis whilst the fungi provides a robust means to keep secured to the substrate and to absorb water and trace elements drawn from the gravestone. They come in different forms. Typically on gravestones we might find the amorphous-shaped dusty patches of leprose lichens, the rough-surfaced crustose lichens typically found embedded in sandstone monuments. Occasionally we might also find the rosettes of foliose lichens usually growing proud of the surface of the headstone. Unlike fast-living flora and fauna, such as the shrews nearby which might live for just six-months, lichens have been dated to over 500 years and can resist periods of extreme cold. They create their own microclimate, within which many minute creatures make their home. Around a millimetre long, living on the surface and within the structures of lichens and mosses, is the group of microscopic creatures known as tardigrades. Splash a lichen with water and capture the run-off on a slide and even under a hand lens you can see these ‘water bears’ as they are also known, because they have the appearance of a cuddly swimming teddy. There resilience enables them to survive prolonged periods of freezing cold and can recover speedily when conditions reverse. They float around in air-currents much like pollen, have been recovered from the outer atmosphere, will survive long periods of drought, and do not need to feed for years on end only becoming active again once re-hydrated. These microscopic beasts feed by grazing on the bacteria and detritus found on the surface of the lichen or moss. In return for benefiting from a moist secure niche their grazing ensures the surface of mosses and lichens remain dust-free, thus aiding the efficient photosynthesis by their hosts.

I hope a few of you will take the opportunity to enjoy our local Anglican churchyards in Hawridge, St Leonards and Cholesbury as well as the small Baptist churchyard in Buckland Common.


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