the GiGLer

The newsletter of Greenspace Information of Greater London CIC

Life of Churchyards

Brian Cuthbertson, Head of Environment and Sustainability, Diocese of London

© Maria Longley

© Maria Longley

I first introduced the Diocese of London’s churchyard ecology survey to GiGLer readers in 2013, when the project was just beginning.

We have now extended the scope of the project to cover the whole of Greater London, making this the first comprehensive survey of churchyards in the capital. The entire database of London churchyards across the 33 boroughs contains 557 sites with at least some green life. The original study sample included 50 sites from ten boroughs. This has been extended to 90 sites from 15 boroughs. Desk studies will be completed on all 90 sites. Only 56 of these sites, 10% of the total number of churchyards in the database, will actually be visited and surveyed. We have visited 31 so far.

Results have surpassed expectations. Here are some highlights:

  • At least two churchyards (St. Lawrence, Little Stanmore, and All Saints, Isleworth) have six species of bat.
  • The firecrest, Regulus ignicapilla, has been identified in All Saints, Isleworth. According to Andrew Self, author of The Birds of London, there are only about nine breeding pairs in London. GiGL has three records of breeding firecrest in London, not including the sighting at All Saints.
  • The nuthatch, Sitta europaea, has been observed in St. Dunstan’s churchyard, Stepney. This species is indicative of former brownfield areas that are enjoying ecological recovery.
  • The Mile End jumping spider, Macaroeris nidicolens, has been sighted in St. Mary’s, Leyton – only the 5th ever UK sighting. There are two records of this species in the GiGL database.
  • 28 species of lichen are new to GiGL’s database

GiGL gave us data, free of charge, for 1km diameter circles around our first 50 study sites. There is only about 10% overlap between the data GiGL initially supplied and the records we have submitted. This may reflect a difference between churchyards and other habitats, or simply the relative incompleteness of observations. We still need to complete analysis of our last six site visits – the first 25 have been logged so far.

We need £60K additional funding to complete the whole project including procuring desk studies on the 40 new study sites, undertaking 25 more site visits, and producing the final report. The funding target also includes provision for accessing GiGL’s data and expertise. Any reader with a rich, green uncle or aunty – please speak up!

Further to the professional surveys by ecological consultants AECOM (formerly URS), we received additional help, much of it voluntary, including lichen surveys by Ishpi Blatchley of the British Lichen Society, and Alison Fairbrass’ acoustic recordings of bats and birds. Alison, a PhD student at UCL, has analysed the bat calls using Sonobat software and iBatsID classification.

Bird species have been identified by Andy Lester of A Rocha. This work was peer reviewed within UCL, a process which yielded 100% agreement with Andy’s results. A fascinating but tantalising survey of arachnids, commenced by Edward Milner, LNHS spider recorder, is to be completed.

In the longer term, we are considering an assessment of the value of natural capital in our churchyards. This might help with fundraising – but will itself need funding.

1 Comment

  1. Dave Dawson on September 2016 at 6:23 pm

    The account suggest that the focus is on presence/absence of species in churchyards. Some comments in this regard.

    1. No inventory, even of easy groups such as higher plants, is ever complete. This will be part of the reason for the difference between the GIGL 1km diameter lists and your own. The GIGL lists will be badly biased by differing biotope, location and observer effort and competence, yours hopefully less so. Seeing the records as “found/not found”, rather than “presence/absence” helps to emphasise the problem of implied absences, many of which will reflect the geographic imprecision and varying effort and competence, not reality.

    2. The GIGL list from a 1km diameter area comes from such a large and diverse place that it tells you practically nothing about the churchyard at its centre. You should ask GIGL for records reported from actual churchyards or, at worst, from much smaller areas better approximating your sites.

    3. One desirable feature of biological records is geographic precision. Many years ago Dawson & Game recommended using small, relatively homogenious recording areas. Many biological records are still not collected in this way. For example, the ongoing New London Flora has a focus on one kilometre squares of the national grid, impossibly imprecise for a focus on small sites such as churchyards. Those of us who record in small homogeneous areas are criticised by the Vice County plant recorder, who regards this as unnecessarily fussy and a waste of time! I will have churchyard lists from my, fussy, recording for the flora, but few others will.

    3. Even in small homogeneous areas, the longer one looks the more one finds. I’m still finding a few new species in my local 2ha wood, despite having visited it monthy for some 30 years. This makes “found/not found” a poor measure of biodiversity: it’s equally a measure of search effort. A simple measure of abundance helps to overcome this problem. Most species are uncommon or rare, but it’s the more common and widespread species that best define the interest of a site. Indeed the rarest records are almost chance events, conveying little of interest. Unfortunately, few biological records provide information on abundance, even though simple measures (such as number found per unit effort) have been around for many years. I’m probably the only one using a reliable abundance measure on the more common and widespread species of higher plants across all my recording sites. Most botanists count only rare species and the recommended assessment of abundance (“DAFOR”) works only at the level of a sample quadrat. One hopes that the churchyard records will employ a good measure of abundance, as that will promote comparisons in both space and time.

    4. I’m incredulous that you have 100% agreement on bird lists from independent review. Even in the breeding season, when many species are relatively sedentary, two visits to any site will rarely yield identical lists of species (indeed the rationale underlying the old “CBC” territory mapping and the present-day “BBS” line transect schemes to index bird populations in both cases attempts to overcome just this difficulty).

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