• Susie Culhane

Managing St Swithun’s Churchyard for biodiversity

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

The Reverend William Keble Martin’s connection with Woodbury parish, his passion for botany and botanical illustration inspired the Woodbury Wide Awake Festival (WWA) of 2019. Earlier this year, the organising committee steering group and others met to consider what the legacy of the festival could be. A collective desire to encourage a greater understanding and appreciation of the natural environment emerged as a key theme. One of the most serene and contemplative green spaces in the parish, St Swithun’s church and churchyard, which dates back to the 13th century (Parish Church of St Swithun, Woodbury, Devon, n.d.), was suggested as a location where this aspiration could be explored.

The churchyard was the setting for one of the WWA events last May, Robin Harford’s edible plants talk.

Burial grounds can be surprisingly rich in biodiversity and support a fantastic array of different species. Agricultural intensification, development, pollution and the everyday use of chemicals has had a negative impact on biodiversity, but burial grounds tend to escape these changes and offer us a glimpse of a past world (Caring for God’s Acre, 2020).

With some simple horticultural and ecological interventions, the churchyard can be managed to promote these rich habitats. The Church of England (2020) describes Churchyards as ‘important for their habitats and as refuges for wildlife and plant life’, and encourages management and use of churchyards in a way that is ‘appropriate and respectful’. Churchyards are also refuges for people, as well as places for burials and remembrance, so need to be managed in a sensitive way.

Managing Churches and Grounds for Wildlife (2015) suggest undertaking a survey to identify which species are present before developing a management plan for the churchyard. A good example at the moment would be delaying grass cutting to allow lady’s smock to flower and provide a food source for the orange-tip butterfly. The management plan will detail cultural techniques to encourage greater wildlife uptake.

Lady's Smock in hay meadow Woodbury
A drift of lady’s smock naturalising in a hay meadow in Clyst St Mary (April, 2020)
Orange tip butterfly, Woodbury Salterton (April, 2020)

Our aim within the churchyard is to create a space to enjoy where everyone feels welcome. This is difficult to achieve at the moment with the closure of the churchyard. Rest assured, pollinating insects and other wildlife have no regard for the government’s guidelines for social distancing and congregating! At difficult and challenging times, it’s worthwhile considering life beyond this current impasse, where the community will be welcomed to celebrate times of happiness such as christenings and weddings. At a point where we have greater opportunities to reflect and take stock of our lives, we must take care of ourselves and the places where we live.

We are involving the community and key stakeholders such as the council and contractors responsible for the maintenance and development of this important amenity and cultural resource.

We would like to create a floral welcome for those entering the church and along the bank facing the cottages, we’d love to create an attractive, nectar-rich feeding station for pollinating insects.

The churchyard is a unique place, at times busy and others where it is infrequently visited by people paying their respects or just enjoying the peaceful environment amongst the headstones. This quietude is also great news for nesting birds.

So, in future if the churchyard is looking a little straggly or in need of a trim, it’s deliberate. We’re not self-isolating, just the opposite, we’re inviting all creatures great and small...

Andy Lewis, MHort

Instagram @andy.d.lewis



British Listed Buildings. n.d. Parish Church Of St Swithun, Woodbury, Devon. [online] Available at: https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101104176-parish-church-of-st-swithun-woodbury#.XpyOZRnYrnE [Accessed 19 April 2020].

Caring For God's Acre. 2020. Biodiversity — Caring For God's Acre. [online] Available at:

https://www.caringforgodsacre.org.uk/biodiversity/ [Accessed 5 April 2020].

Devon Association. 1970. Keble Martin, William – The Devonshire Association. [online] Available at: https://devonassoc.org.uk/person/keble-martin-william/ [Accessed 19 April 2020].

Managing Churches And Grounds For Wildlife. 2015 38th ed. [pdf] St Albans: Diocese of St Albans, pp.1-4. Available at: https://www.stalbans.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/Managing-churchyards-for-wildlife-Leaflet-38.pdf [Accessed 19 April 2020].

The Church of England. 2020. Biodiversity | The Church Of England. [online] Available at:


[Accessed 5 April 2020].

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