Churchyard Nature Note with Andrew Tompsett

April 2018

Brambles and birds


Our churchyard is a place of brambles and birds. What strange and apparently unrelated things you may think and perhaps you may cease reading at this point, but please carry on as there is a strong connection and one which takes us out into the wider countryside and especially into the woodlands of this land.

When I began these nature notes we were keen to explain why we needed our churchyard to be approved, loved and accepted as it is, parts close-trimmed, parts accessible with paths through wild flowers and parts with scrub and brambles for birds and animals. Whilst facing maintenance limitations it would also be a place for wildlife to live and flourish, as far as possible keeping parts natural and wild, in fact a Living Churchyard.

An inescapable factor is the physical size of the churchyard, over 5 acres, and therefore it would be impossible to keep it all trimmed and tidy as some might wish. If you are of this persuasion, have you heard the dawn chorus of birdsong which will be rising to a crescendo over the next month or so? Already the wren, one of our smallest songsters is pouring out his rapturous song and this cute bird, weighing about the same as a £1 coin, likes nothing more than a thick tangle of brambles in which to forage for spiders and insects, either during the winter chills or perhaps building a nest here or in adjacent wall-cavities or open-fronted nest boxes. As a refuge from possible predators, the presence of bramble patches is also vital for the success of this bird. The nest of the wren is built of moss to blend with the surroundings and is a wonderful, bottle-shaped home for the minute eggs and nestlings, up to 10 in number: a thicket rich in insects and grubs is a good source of food for a large family.

What is the connection to the woodlands of our countryside? Did you know that deer numbers have increased greatly in recent years? I recently saw a bunch of four crossing a field at Halgoss. A wonderful sight indeed, but there is a problem with so many foraging deer as they are so fond of grazing seedling trees and bushes, not only in farms and gardens, but in our woodlands where the lower-growing shrubs, saplings and brambles are being eaten making the woodlands bare and draughty below the deer grazing level, that is, the bottom 2 metres. This is making many woodlands unsuitable for those bird species requiring a cosy, scrubby, brambly habitat, perhaps our churchyard can help here?

In passing I would mention that very much rarer bird, the nightingale, which needs the undergrowth as it nests in thickets not trees, whose numbers have declined by some 90% in recent years. Whilst still nesting in the Eastern counties, in Cornwall they may only be seen or heard whilst passing during migration.

Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ gives us the feeling for the density of woodland, the home of this most loved bird.

“In some melodious plot of beechen green, and shadows numberless, singest of summer in full-throated ease”

“But here there is no light, save what from heaven is with the breezes blown through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways”