Churchyards are really important for lichen conservation. Throughout Britain and Ireland churchyards offer a wonderful resource of lichens. They colonise the church, boundary walls and memorials, as well as trees in the churchyard.
Limestone headstones with golden and grey crustose lichens
As the memorials are often made of kinds of stone different from the local building stone, the diversity of species that can be found on all the different substrates in the churchyard can be remarkable. Indeed, in lowland Britain, churchyards are often the only habitat where many species are recorded.
The golden crustose lichen Caloplaca flavescens on limestone
For example, limestone memorials are often found even in areas where the local stone is granite, and the limestone can be quickly picked out because of the golden circles of Caloplaca species which grow upon it.
Some species occurring in churchyards are quite uncommon, or at least uncommon in other habitats. Churches, their memorials and surrounding walls are often the oldest man-made stone structures in the landscape. Although some lichens can colonise substrates quite quickly, with species first appearing within a few years, others colonise very slowly and it can take hundreds of years for some lichens to become established. Indeed, there are some which will only grow on other well-established lichens.
Granite Celtic cross with leafy and crustose lichens
The survival of this wonderful lichen diversity is very much dependent on how the churchyards are looked after. Abandoned churchyards become overgrown and the lichens wither in resulting shade. The gravestones may be cleaned and the lichens scrubbed off as the stone surface is worn away. Saddest of all is the laying flat of vertical memorial stones that have been deemed unsafe. This leaves the churchyard looking like a decimated army on a war-torn battlefield.
The British Lichen Society, mindful of the needs of managing churchyards safely and economically, is keen for the lichens to be considered. We are able to offer advice about:
- whether the lichen flora in a churchyard is of particular value
- how the churchyard can be managed for the conservation of its lichens.
We can also help by participating in the decision-making process about the management of churchyards, so that the best solution can be found for lichen conservation.
The lichen Psilolechia lucida picks out the letters on a slate headstone
Lichens can present particular problems for churchyard management, for example:
- fundamental knowledge of lichens, and of valuable species in the churchyard, may be lacking
- parishioners may be puzzled about the need to conserve lichens in a churchyard which they see as having an entirely different purpose
- in places, the lichen cover may not be regarded as compatible with the purpose of particular stone work which the lichens have colonised
- safety-test surveys may recommend that certain memorial stones are laid down or made safe
- repairs to walls, roofs, monuments or other structures may disturb surfaces which have a valuable lichen flora.
In all these cases, please feel free to get in touch with the British Lichen Society. For example, a free survey could be carried out to see if the lichen flora is of conservation value. A lichenologist could come and meet with parishioners to talk about lichens and explain about their conservation in non-technical language. We can also advise on suitable methods of lichen removal where it is absolutely necessary. We can help to identify particular unsafe headstones that might be made safe to protect the lichens on them. We can also discuss and advise about how to make repairs in such a way that lichens are protected, and inconvenience or disruption of work is minimised. We work closely with other conservation agencies such as Natural England, the Wildlife Trusts and English Heritage. All the advice we offer is free of charge.
Reasons for conserving lichens
Lichen colonisation is a natural consequence of any surface that is left exposed to the environment for a long time. Lichens indicate clean air and are regarded by many as decorative rather than disfiguring. Lichens are very sensitive to environmental change and our lichen flora is constantly under threat from numerous human activities. Without lichens we would have a much poorer understanding of the health of our environment for humans as well as for wildlife.
Grey and white crustose lichens on a sandstone headstone
For detailed guidance on management of churchyard lichens download an MS Word document from the link below.