Conserving wildlife in burial grounds

Jo Price meets Vicky Barnes, a volunteer for Caring for God's Acre, who is looking after areas of rich biodiversity in the West Midlands.

Vicky Barnes. © Andrea Gilpin

Shropshire-based volunteer Vicky Barnes has been working for conservation charity Caring for God’s Acre since late 2018.

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“Ancient churchyards and burial grounds are such a haven for nature and are a precious, often forgotten habitat,” says the retired language teacher, who divides her time between practical work and recording wildlife.

Her hands-on tasks include dry-stone walling, hedge-laying, scything, making compost heaps and pruning trees. “We are focused on maintaining and enhancing a range of wildflowers and grasses, and preserving and creating habitats for amphibians, reptiles, small mammals and birds,” she says.

European robin perched on a gravestone. © Getty

“Our work is quiet and peaceful because we don’t use any machinery – hand tools allow wildlife to easily move out of harm’s way.”

By allowing certain areas of the churchyards and burial grounds to grow long and flower, and scything at the right time, Vicky and other volunteers have helped increase biodiversity at these sites: “The new Beautiful Burial Ground Project portal enables us to document these changes and see patterns.”

Caring for God’s Acre has set up this wildlife recording system with the National Biodiversity Network and works in partnership with other organisations nationally to provide identification training opportunities for recorders.

“It’s simple to do and quite addictive!” exclaims Vicky. “Burial grounds are crucial lifelines for many species, but despite their age and easy accessibility, lots of these are unrecorded.”

Each time she surveys a site, Vicky records as many species as she can to help the charity monitor the area in the longterm: “It is really exciting that all these records are now being gathered and soon everyone will be able to look up their local burial ground, see what lives there and add their own sightings,” she explains.

Primrose and lesser celandine growing in a churchyard. © James Osmond/Getty
Primrose and lesser celandine growing in a churchyard. © James Osmond/Getty

Vicky’s love of citizen science doesn’t stop even when she is away from home: “If I’m on holiday I can’t resist popping into a few burial grounds to record there!”

She now plans to engage more seriously in wildlife identification and classification so she can confidently and accurately report her sightings.

“I adore being outdoors in all weathers and love being physically active,” she says. “Being out in the countryside observing and enjoying nature has always made me feel alive.”


This article originally appeared in BBC Wildlife. Take a look inside the current issue and find out how to subscribe.

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Main image: Vicky Barnes. © Andrea Gilpin