Churchyards should be rewilded to increase biodiversity and to make them “places of the living, not just the dead”, a Church of England bishop has said.
Local parishes are responsible for about 7,100 hectares (17,500 acres) of churchyards in England. The C of E also owns about 34,000 hectares of farmland, mostly let to tenant farmers, and 9,300 hectares of forestry.
Its governing body, the General Synod, will vote later this month on a plan to increase biodiversity and encourage the C of E to develop “land action plans” at parish, diocese and national levels.
Graham Usher, the bishop of Norwich, said the C of E must “look at how the biodiversity of this often very ancient land, with very old trees and hedgerows attached to it, can be enhanced”.
He said churchyards were “quite static” places “apart from the odd hole being dug from time to time”. Usher suggested that areas of churchyards be left unmown to “allow sward and rare species of plants to grow up and flower”.
He said: “My dream is that churchyards will be places of the living, not just the dead.”
A paper submitted to the synod meeting in London says there is “noticeable biodiversity potential” within churchyards. However, it adds, “these places carry significance for the communities that surround them … Their significance and primary role as burial grounds mean that increasing biodiversity within churchyards needs to be balanced with public access and consideration for mourners.”
The C of E’s nationally owned land has “historically been kept to augment the income for the [church], particularly in less well-off areas”, the paper says. There has been “steady movement … towards increasing biodiversity alongside evaluating and reducing carbon emissions on land holdings”.
Usher said the church must work with its tenant farmers to deliver “nature-positive impacts”, adding: “When things are done that are good for nature, they tend to be good also for business and good for people.”
The C of E has published guidance for parishes on increasing biodiversity. It includes leaving areas of long grass, creating wildflower areas, putting up bird and bat boxes, keeping bees and encouraging hedgehogs.
Many parishes have already adopted biodiversity action plans. St Mary’s in Wargrave, Berkshire, has stopped regular mowing and strimming of grass to promote wildflower growth and provide habitat for animals and insects. It has also switched from using fuel-powered tools to a scythe to maintain the rewilded area.
Mike Buckland, the “eco church” lead at St Mary’s, said: “The scythe allows more control over what is cut when we want to encourage native wildflowers to reseed as well as reducing the carbon emissions to zero and the noise impact.”
Regular wildlife surveys at the church have shown an increase in flora and fauna since the rewilding began.