Churchyards: vital stepping stones for wildlife

Published on: 1 March 2017

Working for Norfolk Wildlife Trust's People and Wildlife Team, Gemma Walker invited us to record the wildlife found in our churchyard spaces.

I’m often asked where the best place to see wildlife in Norfolk is. My response is to point people in the direction of one of the county’s fantastically diverse nature reserves. There is no doubt that Norfolk is one of the best places in Britain to see a whole array of wildlife in some very beautiful nature reserves.

However, wildlife can, of course, be found across the county in the wider countryside, on the coast and on grass verges. Your garden may be the best place to see common frogs, the field on the way out of your village is a great place to see brown hares and, what about your churchyard?

Norfolk churchyards can be a valuable wildlife haven. Churchyards often predate the church, making them some of the most ancient man-made features in the landscape. Many retain exceptional areas of wildflower-rich grasslands which have never been ploughed or subjected to chemical treatment, and because of this, churchyards are now strongholds for a number of key wildflower species which are sadly declining in the wider countryside. Six species of the old meadow wildflowers are especially associated with churchyards: – pignut; meadow saxifrage; ox-eye daisy; burnet saxifrage; cowslip and lady’s bedstraw. Three scarce ferns have about 75 percent of their Norfolk populations on stonework in churchyards and half of Norfolk’s 500 lichen species are found mainly in churchyards.

Since 1945, it has been estimated that 98 percent of our once widespread wildflower meadows have now vanished. Churchyards can form the only remaining fragments of old,
unimproved wildlife-rich meadowland in a parish or town, making churchyards vital green spaces for wildflowers to flourish and wildlife to thrive.

But, it is not just plants. Butterflies, moths and bees; amphibians and reptiles; and a wide variety of birds and small mammals such as voles, mice and hedgehogs can be found living and breeding in churchyards.

There are more than 800 churchyards in Norfolk, providing vital homes for species outside of nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). They are important to ‘Living Landscape’ conservation (landscapescale wildlife conservation) as they often provide the vital links between designated nature areas enabling wildlife populations to move and thrive.

Churchyards are stepping stones in Norfolk’s landscape helping to create an ecological network for wildlife to move from one place to another. They have an important role to play in Norfolk’s wildlife conservation and their importance should not be under estimated.

In 2016 Norfolk Wildlife Trust secured a two-year Heritage Lottery funded project called Norfolk County Wildlife Action. This aims to encourage people to record the wildlife they see in their local churchyard. Whether it’s a plant or an animal, common or rare there is now a simple way to log your sightings.

Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS) has developed an online recording form that is simple to use and plays a vital part in helping us record the wildlife found in churchyards.

Whether you see one red admiral butterfly; a flock of house sparrows; a majestic English oak; a patch of lady’s bedstraw or an elusive common lizard or hedgehog please share your sightings with us. To find out more visit or you can email your wildlife sightings to stating the four recording W’s. What (you saw), Where (you saw it), When (the date you saw it) and Who (your name and contact email or phone number).

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