Churchyards and Cemeteries - Habitat Action Plan

Ref L/H2 Local Habitat Action Plan 2
Plan Author: Norfolk Wildlife Trust (Andrina Walmsley)
Plan Co-ordinator: Communities and Nature Topic Group
Plan Leader: Norfolk Wildlife Trust
Final Draft October 2006

Action Plan Summary

Current Status

  • Many older churchyards are remnants of ancient meadows that were used for hay or grazing animals long before the church itself was built. Although once common, meadow habitats have declined markedly nation-wide, and churchyards are an important relic of this ancient grassland habitat. The variety of stone used in church walls and gravestones represents an invaluable habitat, often supporting a rich lichen, moss and fern flora. This can be particularly important for the survival of some species in counties such as Norfolk, where stone walls and natural stone outcrops are relatively scarce. Other habitats of value in churchyards and cemeteries include veteran trees, hedges and their associated 'woodland edge' flora.
  • Cemeteries, although usually of more recent origin, are generally much larger in size, and can be invaluable havens for wildlife, supporting a wide range of habitat types, from gravestones and church walls to trees, shrubs and unimproved or semi-improved grassland. They frequently occur in urban settings, where their value as refuges for wildlife within a developed environment is of great importance.
  • Both churchyards and cemeteries can provide valuable, largely undisturbed habitat for species such as butterflies, slow worms, lizards and bats, provided that they are managed sympathetically.
  • The management of churchyards is usually undertaken either by volunteers from the church congregation or local community, or by a contractor employed and paid by the Parochial Church Council (PCC). Cemeteries and burial grounds are usually the responsibility of the local authority.

National Status

  • It is estimated that, since 1945, 98% of the flower-rich grassland once widespread in the countryside has vanished, either as a result of cultivation, by 'improvement' with fertilisers, re-seeding or drainage, or through development. Churchyards are therefore an important relic of this ancient grassland habitat, as they have usually remained free from fertilisers and pesticides, and most are unthreatened by development or cultivation. Many counties now have churchyard conservation schemes in place to try to ensure that churchyards are managed appropriately to ensure the survival of species that are now rare or uncommon.

Norfolk Status

  • There are approximately 800 Church of England (CoE) churches with churchyards in Norfolk, of which over 650 are still in use. The majority are of mediaeval origin. The total number of cemeteries is unknown. No other county has this number of churches, so the churchyard habitat is of especial importance to biodiversity in the county.
  • Norfolk's churchyards, belonging to both used and unused churches, provide the chief refuge for the survival of six wildflowers, three ferns and about 100 lichens in the county. Six species of the old meadow flora now have around 50% of their Norfolk populations in churchyards - pignut (Conopodium majus), meadow saxifrage (Saxifraga granulata), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), burnet-saxifrage (Pimpinella saxifraga), cowslip (Primula veris) and lady's bedstraw (Galium verum). Three scarce ferns, wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria), black spleenwort (Asplenium adiantum-nigrum) and maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes) have about 75% of their Norfolk populations on stonework in churchyards. About a third of Norfolk's 321 lichen species are found mainly in churchyards, and some are entirely confined to them. For example, Churchyard Lecanactis (Lecanactis hemisphaerica) is a rare lichen of shaded north- and east-facing church walls, which is now confined to just 15 sites in south-east England, eight of which are found in Norfolk. Like stonework ferns and flowers, saxicolous lichens have few other places to grow in this region as stone walls and natural outcrops are scarce. Old limestone headstones provide the best sites for lichens, but many also occur on mortar of walls, especially those made of flint.
  • Approximately half of Norfolk's CoE churches, as well as a small number of non-CoE churches, belong to the Churchyard Conservation Scheme, established in 1981 and run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. The aim of the scheme is to monitor the condition of the churchyards through regular survey, and to advise church officials on appropriate management to encourage the survival of the plants of special interest. For practical reasons, it is usually only possible for relatively small, species-rich 'conservation areas' to be managed in the most beneficial way.
  • Four churchyards and two cemeteries have been designated as County Wildlife Sites in Norfolk.

back to top

Current factors affecting the habitat in Norfolk

Churchyards and churchyard-dependent species in Norfolk are at increasing risk from a number of factors, including:

  • A general lack of awareness and understanding of the biodiversity value of churchyards and the rarity of meadowland habitat
  • A lack of understanding of what constitutes suitable churchyard management
  • A shortage of resources (labour and funding) to manage churchyards appropriately
  • Insufficient resources to deliver churchyard conservation advice widely
  • Potential/perceived conflict between a well-kept churchyard and one managed for wildlife, eg grass may be mown too frequently, gravestones may be 'cleaned' etc
  • Health and safety issues leading to loss of habitat, eg repositioning of gravestones (which can cause damage to lichens) and felling of veteran trees which are considered 'dangerous'
  • Architectural renovations to church fabric leading to loss of habitat, eg access to bat roosts, damage to wall plant species
  • Inappropriate tree/shrub planting, eg poor siting causing shading of lichens or meadow flowers, or the use of inappropriate and exotic species
  • Inappropriate use of herbicides especially around footings of church walls and gravestones.

back to top

Current Action in Norfolk

  • The Churchyard Conservation Scheme, run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, involves approximately 350 churches and offers free advice to church managers, site visits on request and a rolling programme of surveys to monitor the condition of key churchyards.
  • Periodic workshops are run under the auspices of the scheme for churchyard managers and others involved in managing churchyards.
  • The Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches (DAC) advises parishes on the care of churches, including churchyards. The ecological advisor to the DAC plays a key role in managing the Churchyard Conservation Scheme.
  • The Churchyard Conservation Scheme is affiliated to the national Living Churchyards Project, which aims to encourage the management of churchyards in a wildlife friendly way, as well as share best practice and management advice through email groups and conference activities.
  • Four churchyards and two cemeteries in Norfolk have been designated as County Wildlife Sites and are managed under the CWS system, run by a partnership of Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Norfolk County Council, and Natural England (formerly English Nature and Defra/RDS).

back to top

Action Plan Objectives and Targets


  • There are no national BAP objectives and targets for churchyards and cemeteries. However, the unique biodiversity value of churchyards for wildlife and long tradition of churchyard management, together with the particular difficulties of maintaining appropriate management in churchyards today, distinguish them sufficiently from other grassland habitats to merit a separate action plan.


  • Increase the number of new churchyards enrolled in CCS by 15% (about 55 churches) by 2010.
  • Increase the number of enrolled churchyards actively taking part in CCS by 15% (about 55 churches) by 2010.

back to top