David Shreeve's Comment
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David Shreeve's Comment

Valuing our Churchyard trees

It is estimated that the Church of England has some 10,000 churchyards. No-one knows just how many trees they contain or indeed what sort of trees they are.  We know that the yews in our churchyards are part of a unique collection – perhaps the world’s greatest collection of ancient trees – receiving visitors from around the world and many are older than the church.  But what of the other trees often growing silently in sacred corners asking little of human help?

Trees are living things, just like you and I, and need managing and care, not to mention occasional treatment for disease and eventual replacement. Whilst they grow on church land they are by no means limited to enjoyment by just congregations; our churchyard trees are shared by the whole community and any loss is shared. The fact that their demands are few means that they are often taken for granted, but unless we make plans now new generations will not thank us for gaps in future landscapes.

It is time to appreciate our churchyard trees to ensure that they continue to bring their vital appearances, sounds and chemistries to communities throughout the land.

The Benefits of Churchyard Trees

Our churchyard trees offer numerous benefits. Many were planted as an aesthetic feature with links from far away, having been brought back from distant shores by travelers long gone. They can also tell a tale closer to home, representing consistency and a living link to a community’s past, planted to commemorate a person or event, or be a relic of a site’s former landscape.

A look at a few of Lancashire’s seemingly innocuous churchyard trees reveals this wide value. At St. Wilfrid’s in Standish the layers of plantings reveal much about the history of the church, and the influx of exotic species to UK. A rare dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) towers above the cemetery, whilst the Tibetan cherry (Prunus serrula) by the church is one of many introductions by the great explorer and plant collector, Ernest Wilson. The churchyard’s oak screen offers a story closer to home, commemorating the death in 1885 of W.H. Brandreth, a rector of the church who did much to encourage tree planting here. At some churches the significance of the trees has been brought into the church, such as at St Margaret’s in the Forest of Bowland, where oaks adorn windows, choir stalls and stone work.

Events around churchyard trees

In Croston, near Preston, you can find a much more contemporary story of churchyard trees. Fifteen years ago Canon Brunswick set about planting 800 trees on the land of St Michael’s, recruiting volunteers, many of whom were not church goers, to create a community woodland. Today the woodland hosts the village’s annual Music in the Woods event, the local primary school uses it as an outdoor classroom, and families picnic in the summer. These trees may even have lessened the damage of flooding last Christmas, when rivers in Croston peaked at their highest levels since records began.

Our shared responsibility

The sanctuary offered by churchyards for their trees should not be taken for granted however – many have little or no protection and their value relies on good stewardship. The Church has a responsibility to protect this valuable shared asset but so does the wider community. Churchyards benefit the whole area, offering a refuge for nature in urban areas, a focal point in smaller towns, and an exceptional resource to explore both the natural world and local heritage. As such the burden of caring for them should also be shared.

It is time to take stock and look forward and appreciate that the Church has in its care a national forest which needs the support of the public at large. I believe that initiatives such as the Charter Branch network, which help the church and wider community to share responsibility for churchyard trees and reveal their significance for the whole community, are major stepping stones to bringing long term protection to our churchyard trees and the benefits they provide. It is with this in mind that The Conservation Foundation has launched the Churchyard Trees Conferences, to bring together the church, arboriculturalists, natural societies and the wider public to support our churchyard trees and develop new partnerships that secure their long term future.

David Shreeve, National Environment Adviser to the Archbishops' Council of the Church of England