Sunday, 29 May 2022

Rewilding God's Acre

With fewer natural habitats left in the world, conservationists are now looking for green spaces within urban areas and intensive agricultural land to lead the way in protecting wildlife. Green spaces such as parks, gardens, and roadside verges, are now being transformed into biodiversity hotspots in several ways - planting of native flowers, plants and trees and providing safe spaces for animals such as, insect hotels, hedgehog houses and bird and bat boxes. The public are being encouraged to rewild their gardens with new incentives such as 'No Mow May' (PlantLife.org.uk). Whilst a lot of attention has been placed on these spaces, only recently have conservationists started paying attention to burial grounds. Very little information is available on the biodiversity potential of burial grounds but one thing that scientists are sure of is that they could play a very important role in conservation.

Due to the protected status of most burial grounds and their importance in religious and cultural traditions, these sites have remained relatively untouched for potentially hundreds of years. Burial grounds now occupy a huge amount of green space within urban areas and may already be host to rare plants and animals that have survived in these urban oases for centuries. The Moravian Church in the UK owns numerous burial grounds with some in use and some no longer in use. These sites have the potential to play a vital role in conservation efforts and to combat climate change as well. Plans have been implemented in some Moravian burial grounds to increase their suitability for native animals and plants.

My study was inspired by one burial ground, Woodford Halse in Daventry. It is no longer in use and huge efforts to rewild the space are underway. The management of the site has been changed to prioritise conservation efforts whilst continuing to respect the religious traditions and people who on occasion will visit the graves of their relatives. The burial ground in Woodford Halse is the perfect example of how these sites can drive positive change and make a difference to the abundance of native animals whilst maintaining the traditional standards of the burial ground. Those that know of Woodford Halse may suggest that there is plenty of green space surrounding it already, so surely the wildlife in that area is doing fine. However, farmland acts as a desert for animals and plants. Green fields are dominated by one or two crop species which tend to be non-native and cannot support insects and other native animals. Crops and fields for livestock take up large quantities of land which lead to them being one of the main causes of habitat and species loss in the world.

One other burial ground also starting to change their land management strategy for the better is Fetter Lane in Chelsea, London. The Fetter Lane congregation is still active, and the burial ground is well used by members of the congregation, residents, visitors, maintenance workers and vehicles. This site could be considered an opposite to Woodford Halse, however both sites share the same goal. The Fetter Lane burial ground now has a vital dead wood area which is important in encouraging many rare animals including the critically endangered Stag Beetle, as well as very important specialist insects such as hoverflies and the more common Lesser Stag Beetle. The planting of more native plants and the decrease in the amount of mowing will help increase the number of animals found at the site.

The foundation of life starts with insects: insects and other invertebrates have been around for over 400 million years, much longer than many other animals, including us! Insects have evolved close relationships with plants and many other insects are more effective pollinators than bees! They are also food for many small mammals, reptiles, bats, and birds. Therefore, the first step in trying to encourage native animals back to an area is to increase the number of insects found there. Consequently, as an entomologist I knew it was vital to study the insects within burial grounds as a first step towards understanding how useful burial grounds could be for British wildlife.

Over the months of May until August last year I visited both sites once a week and used a humane moth trap to collect and count the number and variety of moth species found at each site.

Moths are used in many scientific studies as indicator species, this means that we can track changes in moth numbers and relate them to changes in the environment. I chose moths for this very reason. As well as their sensitivity to environmental and climate changes, moths are food for many rare birds, bats, and other animals, therefore a decline in moths in an area will most likely correlate with a decline in many other animals we know and love.

The moths were photographed, counted, and then released. I identified each moth and collected the data for analysis. I expected to see a higher number of moths and more variety of species at Woodford Halse, as the site is a lot 'wilder' with long grasses, and a beautiful variety of wildflowers to encourage more insects than the Chelsea site. Whilst conducting my study I began to notice a huge difference in the numbers of moths found at the two sites, and as I guessed the more natural site did yield a significantly larger number of species than the 'neater' and more manicured Fetter Lane site.

My study showed that the decrease in mowing alongside the increase in the number of wild plant species at Woodford Halse was a success and the site has increased its conservation potential. Woodford Halse is an Eden tucked away in a small Northamptonshire village. Whilst visiting in the summer I could not believe the amount of life in one small space, everywhere you look is teaming with beautiful creatures. Butterflies and moths fluttering between the flowers, bumble bees, miner bees and wild honeybees buzzing around busily, beetles munching away at the leaves and bits of bark, hoverflies scanning the area and so much more. As an Entomologist I truly was in heaven!

This is not to say that the efforts at Fetter Lane go unnoticed, the site is being mown less and there are more wildflowers being grown and the results are already visible. On my visits to Fetter Lane I was glad to see an abundance of insects, birds and even bats in the grounds making it hard to believe that the busy concrete jungle of the Kings Road was just behind the walls. Both sites truly were little pockets of bountiful life in the middle of man-made deserts. Whilst many 'traditional' thinkers may think that a wildflower meadow is an 'overgrown mess', I urge them to look again and look closer as there is a whole micro world in there. Insects busy working and growing in preparation for the healing and nurturing they will do for our native animals and plants, as well as for ourselves. Both Woodford Halse and Fetter Lane are doing fantastic work to aid in preserving British wildlife and to lessen the impacts of climate change and as the study shows their efforts are really paying off! I hope that not only other Moravian burial grounds can learn and change from them but also other religious burial grounds and green spaces. You can even help at home by growing your own wildflower meadow, mowing less often, and adding insect hotels, wildlife ponds and so much more!

Imogen Newens-Hill
Entomologist

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
London 
N10 3TJ

Tel:

020 8883 3409

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