How Dorset’s churchyards provide a haven for wildlife

Fontmell Magna - an excellent example of chruchyard management with pockets of wilder areas

Fontmell Magna - an excellent example of chruchyard management with pockets of wilder areas - Credit: Archant

From bats to beetles and barn owls to butterflies, churchyards provide a wonderful haven for some of the UK’s rare flora and fauna, says Sally Welbourn of Dorset Wildlife Trust

A churchyard is where you can visit a loved one’s resting place, indulge in some quiet contemplation, or even do a little bit of research into your family history. But did you know that there is an abundance of wildlife living in these wonderful wild spaces? A bit like our gardens, churchyards can provide an oasis for wildlife in a sometimes hostile area of intensive farming or urban sprawl. These peaceful plots are great place to see wild lives thriving all year round.

Here at Dorset Wildlife Trust we are particularly keen to maintain our local churchyards as they provide a place for wildlife to exist in a protected area. We want to make the most of their unique habitat. The undisturbed nature of a churchyard means that often there are ancient grasslands which have never been re-seeded creating a rich habitat for scarce grassland flora or colourful waxcap fungi. Fungi can take all shapes, sizes and colours, so look out for them at this time of year, especially near old veteran trees and in grassland areas.

In fact, there’s a whole host of wildlife churchyards can benefit, including birds, mammals such as foxes and hedgehogs and voles, invertebrates including butterflies, bees and other important pollinators, and lichens. These survive in the habitat provided by trees, grasses and even the gravestones themselves, and form an essential part of the lifecycle for other wildlife – if you’re lucky you may see a barn owl swoop down to catch a vole.

And it’s not just outside that you may find wildlife: it’s not uncommon to find bats in the belfry. These can be a ‘mixed blessing’; the droppings and urine created by bats can damage the interior of the building, but the belfry provides vital breeding and roosting places for some very rare species of bat. This is especially important as many other traditional buildings have been lost or converted over the years.

Wherever a churchyard is, it will need care and attention to ensure the grounds are managed with wildlife in mind and to attract a large number of species. Considerations such as ensuring there is short and long grass, cutting the grass at the right time, or even putting up bird boxes in good locations can all help make the most of this space for wildlife. This is where we come in. Established by Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) more than 20 years ago, DWT’s Living Churchyards project has given advice to over 100 churchyards across the county, recognising and congratulating those who are managing their churchyards with wildlife in mind at an annual awards ceremony.

It’s not just wildlife which benefits from a well-managed churchyard, the local community also gains. Churchyards provide a tranquil escape from modern life, a place to lose yourself in the history, heritage and natural beauty found there, which in turn benefits our wellbeing and cultural awareness.

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