Earth to Earth is a beautifully produced small book about the wildlife of graveyards in the UK, focussing on English churchyards, but also applicable to cemeteries that are not attached to churches. It's a wonderful celebration of nature in these very special greenspaces, which at the time of publication (2018) were still rarely visited, though lockdown lead a lot of people in the UK to adopt their local cemetery for their #DailyExercise.
I was particularly pleased to receive this book for Christmas, as I am currently carrying out wildlife surveys of all the council owned cemeteries in Edinburgh.
The book opens with a brief history of burial grounds in the British Isles. Enclosed churchyards first appeared around 1600 which was around the time when gravestones started to become a regular sight in burial grounds. The author then moves on to look at various aspects of the amazing wildlife that can be found in cemeteries.
England has around 10,000 Church of England churchyards, of which around 6,000 are managed specifically for wildlife. (Figures aren't given for churchyards belonging to other denominations or for unattached cemeteries.)
Enclosed cemeteries and churchyards are often wildlife havens, offering a sheltered place where nature can thrive even when urban development covers over much of the surrounding natural habitats. In Norfolk, for example, around half the populations of some of the county's rarest flowers are found in its graveyards. Insects and other invertebrates, such as spiders, are the least
understood inhabitants of cemeteries, but the more charismatic wildlife
depends on them. Insects mostly feed on plants, so it is important to maintain the vegetation in a churchyard, not to strip it all back in an attempt to tidy up (admittedly, this is easier in an old churchyard, a graveyard that is still regularly used for burials is much more likely to need to be kept tidy).
Churchyards also offer a wide range of miniature habitats. These habitats include gravestones, which are often colonised by an interesting array of lichens (organisms that are made up of both fungi and algae growing together), many of which are rarely found elsewhere. Many graveyards also include areas of short grass that are not treated with herbicides and so are vital habitats for waxcaps, a beautiful group of fungi, many species of which are rare in the UK. Church buildings are also often home to wildlife, including bats and peregrine falcons.
This book offers not only concise overviews of the various types of wildlife found in graveyards, but offers tips on how best to manage these special places, making the point that 'churchyard management for wildlife is principally about conservation - conserving what is there, rather than trying to create something that is not'. Headstones should be only minimally cleaned for example, to preserve the lichens that often grow on them.
The book mentions several times that graveyards are rarely disturbed, but that is changing since lockdown inspired not only daily walks in the local cemetery but a plethora of Friends Groups, some of which risk, as the book says 'well-meaning but misguided projects and enthusiastic amateurs [which]can cause more harm than good and result in a wilderness rather than a wildlife reserve.'
The book includes poetry about churchyards, drawings by Felicity Price-Smith and many photos from a variety of people including the author and illustrator.
This beautiful book is a great gift for anyone interested in the nature of churchyards and cemeteries. It's also an eye-opener for those who think that cemeteries are only places of the dead.
Read the author's essay on churchyard conservation on the website of the Sid Valley Biodiversity Group here.