Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by English Nature (CEM 73)


  1.  English Nature recognises that many cemeteries support an important diversity of wildlife, and in some cases act as valuable refuges for rare and uncommon species and habitats, especially in the urban and suburban context (see paras. 2.2-2.11 below). They can play a key role in the implementation of local Biodiversity Action Plan targets.

  2.  We recommend that, as part of local biodiversity audits, all cemeteries are surveyed and evaluated for their biodiversity and if found to be of importance considered for designation and protection as local Wildlife Sites by local authorities, in association with local Wildlife Trusts and other interested groups.

  3.  We recommend that management of cemeteries should benefit both biodiversity and people. We support measures taken by local authorities to conserve biodiversity and facilitate the public enjoyment and understanding of it. Declaring appropriate cemeteries as Local Nature Reserves under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, is a recommended means.

  4.  We believe that the maintenance and restoration of monuments and headstones, as well as active burial space, need not be to the detriment of biodiversity. We recommend that managers work to management plans, in partnership with interested bodies, with the aim to balance the various interests and activities that cemeteries fulfil.

  5.  Cemeteries can play a useful role in the provision of multi-functional green networks within the urban fabric, for people's contact with nature, and other broader environmental benefits. We recommend that this role is recognised by local authorities within Local Plans in line with English Nature's recommended access to natural greenspace standards.

  6.  We recognise the value of the Living Churchyards and Cemeteries project in raising awareness of the natural heritage of cemeteries and facilitating local people's participation in conservation, and recommend that resources are sought to continue its work in partnership with key organisations.

  7.  We strongly recommend that land of high biodiversity interest is protected from proposed burial space by local authorities in Local Plans, and suitable provision for protecting wildlife features and creating new habitats, where appropriate, are included in new cemetery proposals.


  1.1  English Nature is the statutory body that champions the conservation and enhancement of the wildlife and natural features of England. We do this by:

    —  advising—Government, other agencies, local authorities, interest groups, business, communities, individuals;

    —  regulating—activities affecting the special nature conservation site in England;

    —  enabling—helping others to manage land for nature conservation, through grants, projects, and information;

    —  enthusing—advocating nature conservation for all and biodiversity as a key test of sustainable development.

  1.2  In fulfilling our statutory duties, we:

    —  establish and manage National Nature Reserves;

    —  notify and safeguard Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs);

    —  advocate to government departments and others effective policies for nature conservation;

    —  disseminate guidance and advice about nature conservation;

    —  promote research relevant to nature conservation.

  1.3  Through the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, English Nature works with sister organisations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to advise Government on UK and international nature conservation issues.

  1.4  The following submission on cemeteries and crematoria deals with matters of interest which fall within the remit of English Nature. Our definition of cemeteries is those burial spaces outside the confines of a church. These are primarily those owned and managed by local authorities or private companies, although it doesn't exclude those that fall within the ownership of churches and other religious denominations.


  2.1  As well as providing us with a rich historical and cultural resource, the establishment of cemeteries has left us with an important environmental legacy. Changes, particularly over the past 60 years, have resulted in very many cemeteries becoming important wildlife havens and places where people can have safe and informative contact with nature.

  2.2  Cemeteries vary considerably in size, structure, management and distribution. They are predominantly urban or suburban, although some are found on the rural fringes of towns and cities, and are rarely more than 150 years old. Small cemeteries are a feature of villages and rural communities, and can date back considerably further. Very many are good for wildlife, and this has been extensively recorded. They can also provide a broader function acting as nodes and linkages within a wider network of green spaces and corridors for the benefit of both wildlife and people. There will be additional environmental benefits in terms of air and noise pollution amelioration, reduction of surface run-off, and oxygen production.

  2.3  Due to the origin of the land cemeteries once enclosed and the management practices adopted, cemeteries can support habitats and species populations that are relics of the former countryside. The range of habitats can be diverse. Relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds, flushes, and more artificial features (such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, shrubberies) are all present. In addition buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest.

  2.4  Most cemeteries were formed from enclosing grassland (usually meadows and pastures) or arable land. Where traditional management methods have occurred, along with an absence or restrictive application of fertilisers and herbicides, these can support a range of plant species that may otherwise be rare or uncommon in the locality. For example, Morden Cemetery (London) features relict neutral grassland, and supports the only green-winged orchid colony in the capital. Broadway Cemetery (Peterborough) holds the largest population of meadow saxifrage in Cambridgeshire. The Rosary (Norwich) supports heather and wood speedwell, relicts of ancient heathland no longer present in the city. Surveys in Wales have revealed the importance of burial ground grasslands for waxcap fungi, including one of national importance, Hygrocybe caliptriformis, a UK BAP Priority Species. Urbanisation and the intensification of agricultural practices has led to the decline or disappearance of many these species elsewhere in a locality—cemeteries can act as refuges.

  2.5  Surveys of invertebrates have also tended to confirm the importance of many grasslands within cemeteries. Many insects of nationally rare or scarce status have been found, even within urban cemeteries, and others are indicative of the relict habitats found within. Commoner insects associated with grasslands, such as many butterflies, grasshoppers and crickets, provide additional interest for visitors, adding a sense of life to cemeteries during summer.

  2.6  Woodland that has developed in under-managed cemeteries is usually a mix of opportunistic species, such as ash, sycamore, elder, goat willow, and horse chestnut interspersed with the stands of planted ornamental trees. Ivy is usually prolific, as is bramble found on the edges. Although this is generally species-poor, this can provide important habitat for birds, mammals and invertebrates. In inner urban areas cemeteries often support the most significant tract of woodlands (eg Abney Park Cemetery, Hackney), and are valued as such by local people for the sense of the wild that they provided.

  2.7  We recognise, however, that the development of woodland can undermine graves and lead to the break-up of structures, through the penetration of root systems. Large under-managed tracts of woodland can also become impenetrable; issues of access and security are important to address for the visiting public. We therefore support a balanced management approach to cemetery woodlands, that takes account of the need to maintain the built structures and the value that they provide for people, and those of biodiversity, especially in localities that are otherwise deficient in woodlands. We recommend management plans are prepared by managers, in partnership with interested bodies.

  2.8  Some of the ornamental trees and shrubs planted that have matured, whilst of moderate value to biodiversity, can be uncommon and of interest, such as willow-leaved pear in Witton, Birmingham, and the "trees of sorrow", hybrids selected for their drooping shape (such as weeping beech). Evergreen trees planted for their sombre effect, such as pines, firs, yew and holly, provide refuge for a range of birds such as blackbird and goldcrest.

  2.9  A wide range of birds are supported in cemeteries. Many of these will be those found in neighbouring gardens or countryside, although a number appear to be particularly well suited to some of the habitats present. Grasslands will support foraging areas for green woodpecker, scrubby thickets provide shelter for blackcap and feeding areas for goldfinch, whereas woodland stands can support tawny owl, sparrowhawk, great spotted woodpecker, and bullfinch. It was estimated in the late 1980s that Nunhead Cemetery (7 kilometres from St. Paul's Cathedral) supported 60 pairs of wrens.

  2.10  A range of amphibians, reptiles and mammals can also be found, although these will be much more dependent on the size and structure of the site, and its connectivity to other habitats to aid immigration and gene pool exchange. Common toad, smooth newt, common lizard, slow-worm and grass snake can be encountered; reptiles benefit from headstones as places on which to bask. Mammals such as common shrew, hedgehog, bank vole, woodmouse and fox will be present, and deer and badger may utilise cemeteries if they are connected to the wider countryside. Bats may roost in damaged and derelict structures; if undisturbed for some time these may be important for scarcer species such as Natterer's and brown long-eared6. Cemetery grasslands will serve as foraging areas.

  2.11  The importance of cemeteries to lichens and mosses can be high, but is as not well recorded as in churchyards. The location of cemeteries within urban areas, the relative youth of many headstones and monuments, and the use of polished marbles and granites in their construction, restricts the opportunities for a great diversity of these taxa. As with churchyards, the wishes of relatives of the deceased to maintain headstones in a clean state also inhibits them, although this tends to only occur on the more recently interred graves. As with woodlands, we support a balanced approach to ensuring that important lichen and moss communities are conserved where appropriate. The British Lichen Society is able to give guidance.


  3.1  Many cemeteries have featured within habitat surveys within the UK, and have correspondingly been evaluated for their value to biodiversity. In London, for example, over 147 cemeteries have been identified as being of nature conservation importance, with a total area of almost 1,300ha, almost 1 per cent of the total land cover7. Some of these have subsequently received additional planning protection on this base; a number are accorded of Metropolitan Importance, such as Highgate, Morden, and Nunhead Cemeteries. We recommend that, as part of local biodiversity audits, all cemeteries are surveyed and evaluated and if found to be of importance considered for designation and protection as local Wildlife Sites by local authorities, in association with local Wildlife Trusts and other interested groups.

  3.2  Cemeteries can contain UK BAP priority habitats, with many sites containing locally significant tracts, and these should be identified and evaluated within the audit process of local BAPs. In addition within a few urban BAPs, cemeteries (along with churchyards) have been identified as a specific Habitat Action Plan.

  3.3  A number of species present in cemeteries are legally protected and/or listed on various non-statutory schedules. These will include a number of birds and animals protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (eg great crested newt, slow-worm, grass snake), UK BAP Priority Species (eg skylark, song thrush, linnet, stag beetle), and Red Data book species (especially invertebrates).

  3.4  A few cemeteries are managed as nature reserves. For example Bisley Road Cemetery (Stroud, Gloucestershire) is a statutory Local Nature Reserve which English Nature has recently grant-aided. We support measures taken by local authorities to benefit the conservation of biodiversity and people's contact with and enjoyment of it, and that declaring appropriate cemeteries as Local Nature Reserves under Section 21 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, is a recommended means.

  3.5  English Nature supports the efforts to promote the natural interest of cemeteries, whether this is through notice boards, interpretation panels, booklets, leaflets and events. In some cases this has been very successful, often through the enthusiasm and expertise of "Friends of" groups. In particular, the Living Churchyards & Cemeteries project that has been very influential, although it is currently inactive through lack of funding. We recognise the value of the Living Churchyards & Cemeteries project in raising awareness of the natural heritage of cemeteries and facilitating local people's participation in conservation, and recommend that resources are sought to continue its work in partnership with key organisations.


  4.1  English Nature recognises that benefits to biodiversity have often come at the expense of the ornamental, cultural, and recreational value of cemeteries. Many, through years of neglect, have witnessed the decay and dereliction of monuments, to the dismay of many visitors. Root penetration by vegetation (see above) and the burrowing activities of animals such as fox and badger may cause considerable disturbance to graves and structures. The visual impacts of under-management has led to vandalism, can contribute to the perceptions of unsafe areas, and lead to the further dereliction of cemeteries as community assets. Some cemeteries are in "a shocking state"8, and are seen to be places to avoid. Whilst this has often brought about enhancements to biodiversity, we acknowledge the need for a balance between management for wildlife, and the other important functions that cemeteries provide.

  4.2  We believe that management for biodiversity need not be at the expense of the other functions, and that managers seek the expertise of groups such as the Wildlife Trusts and others in order to be successful in obtaining the appropriate balance. There are many existing examples of cemeteries being managed with tangible benefits to biodiversity, as well as meeting the needs of other interests. These include Nunhead Cemetery and St Pancras & Islington Cemetery in London.


  5.1  We strongly believe that people's access to natural greenspace, whether in urban or rural localities, is important for health, education and recreational purposes, and as such is essential to our quality of life. Cemeteries open to the public can play a useful part in this provision, and if linked to other greenspaces and corridors, can act as nodes within a wider multi-functional green network. We recommend that this role is recognised by local authorities within Local Plans in line with English Nature's recommended access to natural greenspace standards9.


  6.1  The state of many cemeteries makes them very expensive to restore to a good state, let alone to near their original state, if that were desired. Long-term neglect cannot be cheaply resolved, which is why low-cost management to benefit biodiversity has often been adopted. This, however, cannot address the repair and maintenance of monuments and headstones. Therefore Lottery funds have been instrumental in levering resources into cemetery projects. We support the role that cemeteries can make towards quality local environments, and recognise that they require the funding in order to meet this successfully. Lottery funding is one way to secure sufficient resources, and we support measures that will help target cemeteries as a priority for such funding.

  6.2  In terms if biodiversity conservation, funding for work in cemeteries has been made available through grants from English Nature's Community Action for Wildlife, MAFF's Countryside Stewardship Scheme, via schemes managed by the Wildlife Trust, and local authorities. Other opportunities are available through the Forestry Commission's Woodland Grant Scheme, the various New Opportunities Funds from the National Lottery, and amending existing local authority management contracts through Best Value. In relation to restoration of structures, biodiversity conservation is often significantly cheaper. Capital works (tree-planting, interpretation) may be easy to fund, but revenue is more difficult to secure. This remains an ongoing problem.

  6.3  In light of the various functions that cemeteries fulfil, we support the development of partnerships, especially between community groups and cemetery owners, in order to prepare and implement restoration and management programmes.


  7.1  We recognise that there will be a continued demand for burial space and this will require the use of land to meet it. Much of this will focus on the rural fringes of towns and cities, on land which may support considerable biodiversity interest. We strongly recommend that land of high biodiversity interest is protected from proposed burial space by local authorities in Local Plans. Suitable provision for protecting wildlife features and enhancing and/or creating new habitats, where appropriate, should be included in new cemetery proposals.

  7.2  We recognise the growing awareness of the environmental costs of burial and cremation, and the rise in "green burials", using planted trees as memorials. As above, we suggest that these should be established on land of low biodiversity value, and that their development should take into account existing wildlife features, and where possible, provision for habitat enhancement where appropriate. Native tree species of local provenance should be planted in preference to ornamental species.


  A.1  The establishment of cemeteries to house the buried of the growing urban populations from the 1830s has resulted in a rich historical, cultural, and environmental legacy. Created upon the outer fringes of conurbations, most of the older cemeteries have now become enveloped within the urban and suburban fabric, and through changes in both management and attitudes, a large number fulfil a range of important environmental functions.

  A.2  Until the Industrial Revolution, the dead were usually buried in the churchyard or small burial grounds near to the chapel or church of the settlement in which they lived. This changed with the rapid rise in urban populations from the early 19th century, compounded by the increased mortality and incidence of disease association with such populations in the light of poor sanitation and foul environmental conditions. The first, established in Liverpool in 1825, stimulated a rush of cemetery growth, so that by 1850 every British town and city had one, with hundreds more being set up by the end of the century. They were usually developed upon existing countryside, away from urban centres, and landscaped and managed in a highly formal and ornamental fashion, resulting in the widescale planting of trees and shrubs, and the establishment of flower-beds and lawns to create a place of beauty in keeping with the aesthetics of the time.

  A.3  After the First World War, the collapse of many cemetery companies, through the increased cost of labour, is well-recorded, and this led to a relaxation—or decline—in management. Increased costs of burial and cultural changes led to the growth in cremation. Many cemeteries subsequently came into the ownership of local authorities, and costs of maintenance led many into a spiral of further decline, and by the 1960s many cemeteries were subject to vandalism, and minimal management, especially if burial space became tight. Those ornamental plantings not grubbed up and replaced with easily maintained lawns were left to nature—a "poignant instance of natural alchemy was the transmutation of London's great Victorian cemeteries into overgrown Gothic-Italianate fantasies where ruined chapels and ransacked mausolea were simply overwhelmed by a tidal wave of green." 10

  A.4  The concerns raised by relatives and those connected with the buried, as well as by communities living nearby, led to the establishment of many support groups—"Friends of . . . "—from the mid-1970s. These have since blossomed, leading to the establishment of a national network of cemetery friends, and a sea-change in the approach to cemetery management and usage.

  A.5  In the past 20 years many cemeteries have become managed for multi-functional purposes, including the maintenance of historical features, biodiversity conservation, and passive recreation. Partnership approaches are being adopted, especially between local authorities, agencies such as English Heritage, and community groups, and the availability of funds through the National Lottery has allowed the restoration of damaged monuments and infrastructure, and the implementation of new works to provide benefits to both people and wildlife. The Living Churchyards & Cemeteries campaign, begun in the 1980s, led to the growing awareness of the importance of such spaces for biodiversity, and the establishment of many local initiatives to promote them throughout the UK.

  A.6  Many urban cemeteries are approaching burial capacity, and the long-term future of burial space provision is of growing concern. 11 This will lead to reviewing the way existing cemeteries are managed (eg increased density), and may lead to the expansion of cemeteries or creation of new burial space, and the development of new approaches to burial (eg green burials). Much of this is dependent on attitudes on burial held within society, which themselves are diverse. Although many people acknowledge the need to reduce the impact of burial (and are looking at alternatives, such as cremation), there are many sectors of society which have strongly-held beliefs which will require the continual provision of adequate space for the foreseeable future. This will have impacts on land-use both within and on the edge of conurbations, and may impact on biodiversity. A recent example was a proposed new Eastern Sephardic cemetery in Barnet within London's Green Belt, on land supporting breeding skylarks and meadow pipits. Although this was rejected at Public Inquiry on landscape grounds—it would have been intensively constructed in line with Jewish tradition—it is indicative of the pressures that are likely to increase on land on the rural fringes of towns and cities.


  1.  Gilbert, O, (1989). The Ecology of Urban Habitats, Chapman and Hall.

  2.  Barker, G, (1997). A framework for the future: green networks with multiple uses in and around towns and cities, English Nature Research Report No.256, UK MAB Committee's Urban Forum, English Nature.

  3.  Gilbert, O, (1989). Rooted in stone: the natural flora of urban walls, English Nature.

  4.  Bertrand, N, (1996). Morden Cemetery: ecological survey and management report, unpublished report for Wandsworth Borough Council.

  5.  Countryside Council for Wales, (2000).

  6.  Sargent, G, (1995). The Bats in Churches Project, The Bat Conservation Trust.

  7.  London Biodviersity Partnership, (2000). The London Biodiversity Audit: Volume 1 of the London Biodiversity Action Plan, London Biodiversity Partnership.

  8.  Worpole, K, quoted at Greening the City conference, TCPA and Landscape Foundation, London, 6 December 2000.

  9.  Barker, G, (1995). Accessible natural greenspace in towns and cities. A review of appropriate size and distance criteria. English Nature Research Report No.153, English Nature.

  10.  Nicholson-Lord, D, (1987). The Greening of the Cities, Routledge & Kegan Paul.

  11.  Halcrow Fox (1997). Burial Space Needs in London, London Planning Advisory Committee.

December 2000

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