August 25, 2012

Grave matters

Cow parsley seed-heads in Selborne churchyard
Southern Cemetery in Manchester is about to become one of 10 graveyard nature reserves in the UK. The council is going to leave parts of the 40 acre site unmown in order to encourage wildflowers, and with them, birds and small mammals, and the larger creatures they support. They're also going to introduce a meadow burial site, and hope to begin running bat- and bird-watching walks.

I love this idea. In cities, green space is often at a premium, and some of the most beautiful, restful and species-rich places are our graveyards. When I lived in a tiny studio flat in Clapham Junction I used to take my book to St Mark's churchyard on fine afternoons and sit in the sun while butterflies danced around me; it was lovely. And every spring I look out for the spectacular violet and white crocuses that carpet the graveyard of St Mary with St Alban in Teddington.

Churchyards and cemeteries have long been known to be wildlife havens, because they tend to be less disturbed than other areas like gardens or agricultural land. In this case, urban ecologist Professor Philip James of Salford University says that because the land was turned into a cemetery in the 1870s, it contains truly old habitats – the remnants of what the countryside was like back then, locked in an ecological time-warp. 

But it's not just nature that will benefit from Manchester's forward-thinking plan; people will, too. "We have the legacy of the industrial revolution; we're the first industrial city," said David Barlow, who leads the council's environmental strategy team. "So having spaces for nature is really important for us."

For more information on making your local burial ground a haven for wildlife, get in touch with the charity Caring For God's Acre.