Surveying Churchyards

Hethel churchyard conservation volunteers photo by Anne Edwards 1/6
Loading up 'Green Hay' from Hethel churchyard photo by Anne Edwards 2/6
Churchyard flora photo by Andrina Walmsley 3/6
Collecting 'Green Hay' from Hethel churchyard photo by Anne Edwards 4/6
Barn owl on gravestone photo by Gary Smith 5/6
Lesser celandine photo by Andrina Walmsley 6/6
Churchyards are special places. There are approximately 800 churches with churchyards in Norfolk, a higher number than in any other county in England. Norfolk also has the highest density of medieval churches in the world and the earliest churches have very species-rich churchyards. The churchyard habitat is therefore of great importance and often contains areas of ancient grassland, which provides an important refuge for a number of wild flowers, mosses, ferns, fungi and lichens as well as some very old and interesting trees. However, it is estimated that only 15% of churchyards in Norfolk are actively managed for conservation. Conducting a wildlife survey of your local churchyard, or cemetery, could help to identify its importance for local wildlife and perhaps pave the way for a long-term conservation programme.

What makes Norfolk’s churchyards so special?

Many Norfolk churchyards are remnants of ancient meadows that were once used for hay or pasture. In some cases, the churchyard is now the only remaining area of ‘unimproved’ species-rich grassland in the parish. In Norfolk, churchyards today provide the main refuge for six different wild flowers, three species of fern and about forty different lichens.

Churchyards and cemeteries also provide quiet, safe areas for slow worms and common lizards and many have very old trees, especially yew, within their boundaries. Sheltered, sunny churchyard areas may also support many butterfly and moth species.

The Norfolk Biodiversity Partnerhsip, created a Habitat Action Plan (HAP) for Norfolk churchyards and cemeteries in 2006, with the aim of increasing the number of churchyards in active, conservation management.

Bats in the belfry…?

Bats are one of the animals most associated with churches and although ‘bats in the belfry’ is a common saying, bats are more likely to be found roosting in porches or the church roof. Belfries can be too draughty and noisy for bats, especially when bells are rung.

Bats and their roosts are protected by law and they should not be disturbed. If you need expert help, the Bat Conservation Trust runs the National Bat Helpline (0845 1300 228), providing information to anyone needing advice on how to live with bats in your church.

Why not start a simple survey today?

If you are planning to conduct a survey of your local churchyard or cemetery, you should first contact the local church warden or management agency (most likely parish or district councils) to advise them of your intentions. It may be that the area in question has already been surveyed under the Norfolk Churchyard Conservation Scheme and/or is managed by a local group. Your surveys could therefore serve to enhance existing conservation plans and could be targeted at areas needing special attention.
If no special conservation programme is in place it would still be useful to liaise with the church warden to ensure that they are happy with your plans and to get their agreement to considering any habitat management recommendations you may wish to make. It will also be necessary to take into account the sometimes conflicting requirements and expectations of various groups, for example genealogists who may require monuments to be free of vegetation, and those tending recent graves who will often wish for the immediate area to be kept clean and tidy.

Some practical steps to take:
  • Produce a sketch map of the churchyard, showing areas of special importance for wildlife and explaining why
  • Identify areas in need of extra work to restore or maintain their interest
  • Encourage local schools to use the area for educational visits
  • Designate the best wild flower areas as conservation areas. Mark these areas with posts and/or signs so that visitors to the churchyard understand why the grass has been left uncut. Be practical when considering the location of conservation areas – do not choose areas where there are a lot of tended or recent graves, or areas where leaving the grass uncut during summer may be unpopular
  • Obtain advice on a suitable mowing regime for your conservation area. We have a range of information sheets on churchyard management
  • The Norfolk Churchyard Conservation Scheme can help with free practical management by signing you up to a work scheme run jointly by NWT and the Norfolk Probation Service, or by putting you in touch with volunteers.

Need some inspiration?

Discover just some of the churchyard surveys people have been carrying out in Norfolk.  

Would you like to tell us about your churchyard survey? Click here

Download churchyard survey forms here.

Churchyard Survey Form (Survey Form V)

Microsoft Excel spreadsheet   
Microsoft Word document       

Please remember to send your completed survey forms to Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service (NBIS)– make your records count!

Norfolk Biodiversity Information Service
Planning and Transportation Department
County Hall
Martineau Lane

Website: NBIS

Need help? Why not join the club…?

The Norfolk Churchyard Conservation Scheme was established in 1981 and is run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust in collaboration with the Diocese of Norwich. Nearly half of Norfolk’s parish churches are registered under the scheme, which aims to help churches manage their churchyards to protect the plant species of particular interest while observing the main requirements of the church. Advice and survey are available on request. Email or telephone 01603 598333.

Would you like help identifying ferns?

Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society has brought out a comprehensive guide to the ferns of Norfolk. For further information visit:

Raising awareness…

Conservation area signs – Put up weatherproof plaques for conservation areas to avoid people thinking the area has been neglected. These are available from Norfolk wildlife Trust. You could also consider labelling items of particular interest such as unusual wild flowers or ancient trees.

Conservation posters – A laminated poster is available from Norfolk Wildlife Trust for use in the church porch or notice board to explain what is being done in the churchyard and why.

Articles – in the parish magazine can explain what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Engage the local community and church congregation in celebration of the wildlife to be found in their churchyard.

Community events – such as putting up bird boxes or bat watching in and around the churchyard are a great way to raise awareness of the importance of the area for wildlife.

For advice on all aspects of churchyard management and copies of the information mentioned above email or phone 01603 598333.


Don’t know a pignut from a bedstraw? Help is at hand…

Identifying some wild flowers can be difficult for the beginner, but help is at hand. As well as the references given at the end of this page, you can take a photograph of the whole flower including the stem and also a close-up of the flower head and email it to Norfolk Wildlife Trust at or upload your photo here.


Like your lichens?

If you do fancy having a go at identifying lichens the Open Air Laboratories Network (OPAL) is running an Air Survey which provides everything a beginner will need to conduct a simple lichen survey.

Visit their website for more information including an identification guide.