Can city cemeteries be nature reserves?

Cemetery (c) BBC Old, overgrown cemeteries can be undisturbed wildlife havens

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A sea of gravestones etched with the names of lost loved ones might not be what you would picture when you imagine a nature reserve.

But Manchester City Council plans to give Southern Cemetery in south Manchester, which is the largest cemetery in the UK, that official title.

According to Natural England, it will be one of just 10 graveyard nature reserves in England. And it is part of a bigger plan in Manchester to put cemeteries "on the map" for nature-loving urbanites.

So just how wild can a burial ground be?

David Barlow, who leads the environmental strategy team for the local authority, says cemeteries are "hidden gems".

"They're lovely places for wildlife," he told the BBC.

Mr Barlow and his council colleagues have the power to "officially designate" an area a nature reserve.

But to have the support of Natural England, the government body that sets the definition of a national nature reserve, they must demonstrate that the proposed site is "special" in terms of the flora and fauna it harbours, and that the council is working to protect it.

Start Quote

Badger (c) Andrew Parkinson/

Badgers [can] cause problems in some cemeteries by digging up the graves”

End Quote Prof Philip James University of Salford

This means marrying up nature conservation with running a working cemetery, which can be a challenge.

As Mr Barlow explained: "People don't want a messy, overgrown grave for a loved one."

So the council has set out to strike a balance between biodiversity and burial site.

In some of the very old areas of the cemetery where few people now visit, they have stopped mowing the grass around the headstones to encourage wild flowers to grow.

"We still cut the grass in parts of these areas to create pathways and access to graves," explained a council spokesperson.

"[And] we continue to cut the grass on a regular basis in the areas where graves are visited regularly.

"People can still place flowers at the headstones of every grave."

As Mandy Elford from the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit explained, the "more natural areas", where the grass has been left to grow already contain a variety of wild flowers, including bluebells, lesser celandine, cuckoo flower, common sorrel and common dog violet.

"Southern Cemetery has also just introduced a meadow burial site and intend to create a wildflower meadow in this area," she said.

The council has also been working with local wildlife groups to survey the site's wildlife. Ultimately, they hope to organise bird or bat-watching tours, to show local people that the graveyard is a space they can visit and enjoy.

Clare Sefton, from the South Lancashire bat group, has carried out bat surveys in Southern Cemetery.

She has found three of the UK's 18 bat species in the cemetery.

"As well as common pipistrelles, we've recorded soprano pipistrelles and noctule bats, which are the UK's largest species," she told the BBC.

She explained that the flying mammals hunt for insects among the cemetery's avenues of mature deciduous trees.

"The cemetery provides an insect-rich habitat in a largely urban area which is a great haven for feeding bats along with some large, old trees which could support bat roosts," she said.

Graveyard safari

Are natural burials a 'greener' option?

A natural burial site

The aim of what is known as natural burial is for the deceased to enter the ecosystem with as little impact on the environment as possible. The sites are also kept relatively wild to encourage wildlife.

"Green burial", as it is also known, is becoming increasingly popular. The UK's first natural burial site opened near Carlisle in 1993, and since then more than 260 sites have opened across the UK.

One defining feature of this type of burial is the unusual materials that the coffins are made from, including cardboard, wood and willow.

Permanent grave markers, made from stone or granite are not permitted on these sites. Instead, some families choose to plant trees to mark a grave. But many graves are left completely unmarked (see above).

Advocates claim that witnessing the passing of the seasons can actually help mourners with the grieving process. Prof Douglas Davies, co-author of a recently published book on natural burials says that families can also find comfort in giving a loved one the "green burial" they had wished for. "Few speak of a cemetery grave as 'what she always wanted'," he told the BBC.

Southern Cemetery is a huge Victorian graveyard, spanning 40 hectares. It is the final resting place of such notable Greater Manchester luminaries as Sir Matt Busby and L S Lowry.

But its hidden wild side really comes to life in the evening.

During her late night bat walks in the burial ground, Ms Sefton has encountered tawny owls and foxes, as well as the three species of bat that were the focus of her work.

This nocturnal activity is not surprising, according to urban ecologist Prof Philip James from Salford University.

"Cemeteries were created by enclosing countryside often contain species-rich grassland, heathland, and woodland," he said.

"[These are] habitats that have disappeared elsewhere in the city as other land around the cemetery has been built on for housing or business."

Crucially, they are also quiet places, leaving wildlife to roam largely undisturbed.

"You find badgers - which cause problems in some cemeteries by digging up the graves," Prof James told the BBC.

"There are often foxes, deer, bats, all the small mammals, [including] shrews and voles, along with a variety of birds nesting the old trees can all be found."

Any unmown grass, patches of which are being left by cemetery management, can be a haven for insects and spiders.

And while native plants such as bluebells grow in the woodland, Prof James says that some "interesting communities of introduced plants [have been] brought in to the cemetery by families".

"You sometimes find climbing roses or buddleia that people have planted at their loved ones' graves," he added.

A big part of the project is addressing the challenge of giving people access to quiet, natural spaces that the council says can improve people's quality of life. This is a particular priority for a city with a post-industrial landscape.

"We have the legacy of the industrial revolution; We're the first industrial city," said Mr Barlow.

"So having spaces for nature is really important for us."

Prof James added that, because the cemetery land was encapsulated in the 1870s, it contains truly old habitats - the remnants of what the countryside was like in those days.

"Urban habitats are, in many places, can be more diverse than the countryside, which is dominated by agriculture," he told the BBC.

"Here we have real diversity."

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