Letting the cemeteries grow wild for #NoMowMay

On wilder cemeteries and flowering trees

After a year of lockdowns and Covid waves, I managed to visit London again for a couple of days in what could be the wettest May on record in the UK. May can often be unsettled and is still spring after all, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. That said, I’ve never known it this stormy.

Camberwell Old Cemetery

London is renowned for its wild cemeteries with Nunhead being one of the most famous. One of my favourites is Camberwell Old Cemetery, a haven for uncommon local bird species like green woodpecker, stock dove and mistle thrush. These are species which like open, parkland style habitats with rich grasslands alongside older or veteran trees to nest in.

St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard as seen from the cemetery

It has some good views of London’s skyline in places, with quite interesting correlations between tombstones and skyscrapers.

A Victorian gravestone resting against the stump of a horse chestnut

This isn’t something that happens by accident. I can’t tell you how many times in the past I lobbied for these grasslands to be allowed to grow where possible or appropriate. Many times in May I would walk through and find the evidence of strimmed grass where flowers had flourished days previously. It’s a matter of communication with grounds staff but also the political will from people in managerial and leadership roles. There’s also the matter of complaints, the sense of things being ‘unkempt’ and ‘wasteland’.

The demand to mow everything is ingrained in English society. It’s a destructive tendency that reduces biodiversity on many levels, however much unintended. The success of initiatives like #NoMowMay are a sign that things are beginning to change and ecological literacy is developing in society. In places like Camberwell Old Cemetery it’s a ‘no-brainer’ because this is old meadowland and it’s been grown and cut once a year, or so, for hundreds of years.

It’s not just in the grasslands that flowers are appearing at this time of year. Many of our trees are angiosperms (flowering plants) and horse chestnut is one of May’s most attractive.

Up close these flowers can look like orchids, sometimes.

In England we have a tree that is also named after the month. One of hawthorn’s folk names is ‘may’. The ‘haw’ refers to the fruit, the ‘thorn’ the tree’s prickly nature. I wonder if the climate crisis may turn hawthorn into ‘april’.

It’s an exceptionally good tree for invertebrates.

In Czechia, my friend Karel recommended checking the flowers of hawthorn if you’re looking for insects. He wasn’t wrong. This tree was covered in large beetles, hornets, wasps, butterflies and bees, all nectaring on it. We lack that biomass and diversity in the UK, perhaps because we stopped allowing our grasslands to flower. At least we now have #NoMowMay to help us on our way.

There’s an old hawthorn growing in my family’s garden. That evening I had a look for invertebrates on the shrubs and flowers. It was a relief, in a way, to find the flowers of the hawthorn were being pollinated by a marmalade fly. Our hawthorn still has something to offer in the wettest of Mays.

Thanks for reading.

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