Friday 19 November 2021

The Wildlife of North Merchiston cemetery

On Monday I gave a talk on North Merchiston Cemetery to the Friendship Group of St Michael's Parish Church (which stands across the road from the cemetery). The talk was split into two halves, the first half covered the history of the cemetery and some of the people buried there, and the second half covered the wildlife of the cemetery. I've posted the text of the second half of the talk below, along with some of the photos I used. 


As well as being a graveyard, North Merchiston Cemetery is a wildlife haven! From nesting great spotted woodpeckers 

to the famous white squirrel that sometimes visits, there's always interesting wildlife to see. 

In Spring, the cemetery is full of birdsong. You may see birds carrying nest material in their beaks. The trees come into leaf and the horse chestnut and cherry trees bloom. Blue bells and wild garlic (ramsons) flower beside the paths.


There's only a small bit of wild garlic in the cemetery these days as it is being out competed by the superficially similar but invasive few flowered leek.

In Summer, dandelions offer a feast for bees and other insects, including 26 species of hoverflies including the footballer hoverfly. 


This is a common hoverfly, but it seems fitting that it hangs out in a cemetery with so many connections to the local football team*. 

Staying with insects, this is the speckled wood butterfly 

 one of the few species benefitting from climate change, it's spreading across Scotland as the climate becomes warmer. Moths are generally nocturnal, but the green long horn moth is a daytime creature and last year gathered in good numbers at one of the lime trees in the cemetery. 

Many birds nest in the cemetery, from wrens who secrete themselves in amongst the ivy to sparrowhawks who nest in one of the trees in the middle of the cemetery. The young sparrowhawks make lots of noise when they're fledging.

Autumn sees the leaves on the trees turn, with beautiful colours across the cemetery.


This is the season for conkers to fall from the horse chestnut tree! You may see flocks of small birds eating together – there's safety in numbers and no need to keep a territory outside the breeding season (unless you're a robin!). Autumn is also the time of year for fungi and there's a great variety in the cemetery, including the parrot wax-cap the only green toadstool in the UK. 

In winter, the trees are bare and much of nature is quiet – though robins (male and female) still sing to mark their winter territories. If you look carefully, you may notice ladybirds hibernating on gravestones, like these orange ladybirds, I have to confess this photo was taken in a different cemetery, but this species is also found on North Merchiston. 

Also keep an eye out for winter visiting birds - if you're very lucky you may see a woodcock, or at least a feather from this enigmatic woodland wader

Winter is the best time to look for lichens, though they're visible all year round – this is sunburst lichen

 North Merchiston Cemetery is not a great place to find lichens as being near the city centre, it's quite bad for air pollution, which stunts the growth of lichens. The cemeteries further out of town (eg Dalmeny or Craigmillar Castle Park) often have wonderful lichens.

North Merchiston cemetery contains many mature trees and there's a Tree Preservation Order on the whole cemetery, so no tree work can be carried out without the express permission of the council. Mature trees are only removed if they are a health and safety hazard, which includes many of the ash trees, which are sadly suffering from ash die back disease. Some of these will be pollarded (cut back to a high stump) so that they can continue to offer homes for insects and birds.

Some grassy areas are left un-mown, meaning flowers can run to seed and insects thrive, offering food for birds from goldfinches to robins.

Other parts of the cemetery are quite wild, including areas of ivy and brambles. It's easy to think that ivy is a bad thing in a cemetery as it can damage graves, but it is incredibly valuable for wildlife, offering nesting sites for birds and winter foods for insects. So you need to be careful when removing ivy to keep the graves safe, not to remove the vegetation that's offering homes for wildlife. There's always a balance between looking after a cemetery for nature and looking after the graves. We're currently losing green-spaces and wildlife at an astonishing rate across the UK and cemeteries are vital wildlife havens. It's encouraging that Edinburgh Council is currently looking at how it can better manage cemeteries for wildlife.

The Friends Group has planted a few trees in the cemetery (which will hopefully grow up to be good replacements for the ash trees that we'll need to remove) and we've put up some bird boxes.


I enjoyed watching a pair of blue tits setting up home in one of these nest boxes, regularly carrying caterpillars in for their young. Then one day the nest went quiet, and I noticed that the entrance hole was now much larger than it had originally been. It looks like our popular great spotted woodpeckers had helped themselves to the young blue tits! (It's worth adding just now, that the woodpeckers have really become quite the local celebrities, but please don't get too close to the nest hole when the chicks are there, as you might scare off the parents and then the chicks wouldn't get fed).

This is just a small selection of the wildlife in the cemetery. So whenever you visit the cemetery, keep an eye open for nature. Will you spot a stoat or a fox? Will you hear a song thrush sing? 


* Many former players of the Heart of Midlothian Football Club are buried in the cemetery.  


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