Churchyard Conservation Area

The fifth Mark of Mission formulated by the Anglican Consultative Council and endorsed by the General Synod, asks us “to strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”.

This sounds like a big challenge for a little church like St.Thomas’ but organisations such as the County Wildlife Trusts, the Church and Conservation Project and our own Epping Forest Country Care have shown how important the sensitive care of churchyards can be.

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St.Thomas’ was built at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Before that, the area which is now our churchyard was grassland and since then, in the oldest part of the churchyard at least, there have been no “improvements” of the land by way of fertilisation, weed- killers or changes to drainage, which means we have a little snapshot of the grassland in Upshire as it was in the 1900’s and before. Stable, unimproved grassland is now rare and covers only 0.28% of the land area of Epping Forest District. Essex has lost 99% of all its herb-rich grassland.

Around fifteen years ago, the Parochial Church Council decided to devote a part of the churchyard to the conservation of its natural flora, bearing in mind the guidelines which say that a well-managed churchyard should be:

  • A pleasant reflective place for congregation and visitors
  • An environment in keeping with the function of burial and scattering of ashes and sympathetic to the needs of those visiting graves
  • A fitting surrounding to the church
  • A haven for grasses, wildflowers, birds and other wildlife

An area to the south of the church is reserved for the burials of members of the Buxton Family. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, who provided the village with the church, was a Verderer of Epping Forest, as was his brother, Edward North Buxton, whose book in 1884, a definitive text on the history, geology and natural history of the Forest, was reprinted many times. An interest in natural history continued amongst various members of the Buxton Family so when a request was made to manage that part of the churchyard a little differently, we were pleased to be given permission.

When you walk through the lychgate, the area to your left on the north side of the church, is not used for burials. The grass is scattered with daffodils and is not mown until their foliage has died down. This gives the opportunity for wild Ladies’ Smocks (or Cuckoo Flowers, or Milk Maids) to grow in the damp grass.

The area to your right is mown short and kept tidy for the benefit of families visiting graves. The wild flower area lies to your left on the south side of the church. This is mown twice a year, in the Spring and then not until late August/early September. The mowings lie for a few (hopefully dry!) days to drop seed, then must be raked off. A  winding pathway is mown through the long grass towards the beech tree which is a pleasant sitting area on a hot summer’s day. Mowing pathways through tall grass helps to show that the overgrown areas are by design, not neglect.

The first summer of the project was a revelation in terms of the variety of flowers and the insects they supported. The horizontal gravestones make wonderful warm basking areas for grasshoppers, crickets and butterflies and, on one occasion, a grass snake. Keeping the stones clear of encroaching plants involves much work on hands and knees but removed plants can be used to colonise elsewhere and the stones benefit from less mower and strimmer activity.

In recent years, there has been some resurgence of tough grasses, which is not ideal and it may be considered a good idea to introduce some Yellow Rattle to counteract this. This change might be connected to the drop in rabbit population – no doubt a relief to grave tenders. Fallow deer and muntjac have taken over from the rabbits but have more appetite for bedding-plants and crab-apple trees than grass.

Ragwort, which is poisonous to grazing stock, is kept under control by hand-pulling unless there are Cinnabar Moth Caterpillars present, when we remove the flowers before they set seed, leaving the leaves for the beautiful striped caterpillars.

If there is a signature plant in St.Thomas’ wildflower area, it is the honey-scented Lady’s Bedstraw, its name deriving from the old custom of including it in straw mattresses for its sedative properties, especially in the beds of women in child birth. This is the froth of minute yellow flowers around and between the Buxton graves in the summer. The compound responsible for the sweet smell is Coumarin. Although sweet-smelling, it has a bitter taste. It is said that while cattle eat Coumarin, pigs and donkeys won’t. Legend has it that the donkey in the Bethlehem stable didn’t eat the bedstraw in its fodder and Mary laid her baby on the rejected plants – hence Our Lady’s Bedstraw.

P1010228As you walk through the arch, you enter the newest addition to the churchyard which is not old grassland. This is mown but gradually wildflowers are appearing. When the Bishop consecrated the churchyard extension in 2008, he planted a Wild Service tree (no pun intended – they are rather special native trees and there is one in the hedge between the old and new churchyards). The parish children planted native cowslips around the tree which hopefully will spread further as years go by.