Why is the grass long in Arnos Vale Cemetery?

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Why is the grass long in Arnos Vale Cemetery?

Ceremonial Way

If you’ve visited the cemetery recently then it may not have escaped your attention that in some areas the grass has become rather long. It’s true that the perfect storm of rain and sun that was this spring has resulted in a rapid verdant growth. It is also true that we intend to cut this grass, however not just yet. Why?

Arnos Vale and nature conservation

ough hawkbit and lady's bedstraw

Rough hawkbit and lady’s bedstraw

To answer this question we need to dive deep into the “grass” for a closer inspection. The first thing you might notice is that there is not just one type of grass but many; upright brome, red fescue, crested dog’s-tail and false-oat grass to name but a few. Keep looking and you will notice the delicate splashes of colour provided by a rich assemblage of wildflowers: Birds-foot trefoil, field scabious, lady’s bedstraw, spiny restharrow, rough hawkbit, burnet saxifrage…. the list goes on. There is nothing outstandingly rare about any of these species alone but together they form a complex habitat that has been an internationally recognised priority for biodiversity for over twenty years. In the UK we have lost more than 97% of these wildflower meadows since 1930. So we’re quite proud of our one.

Large skipper on field scabious

Large skipper on field scabious

Look at the meadow for a little longer and you’ll start to notice the bugs. You’ll almost definitely see a butterfly haphazardly flap past. We have over a third (22) of UK butterfly species resident, not bad for an urban cemetery when nationally they’re having such a hard time. You may also be lucky enough to see the blue streak of a southern hawker dragonfly as it nips through the grass hunting, or the buzzing dumbo-esque flight of the hornet hoverfly, our largest species in the family. Perhaps you’ll even spot the sinister white form of a flower crab spider poised and waiting for prey. You’ll certainly hear the whirring, electronic sound of the numerous grasshoppers and crickets providing the background music to this tiny drama at play beneath your nose. Personally, I feel privileged to witness such an elegant maelstrom of abundant insect life. Especially when considering that a recent study showed three-quarters of flying insects had disappeared in the last 25 years, these sights will become increasingly rare.

Bee on common restharrow

Bee on common restharrow

But this is a cemetery!  True, we are also a Site of Nature Conservation Interest and conserving nature is a fundamental aim of the cemetery. We are not only a place for the dead but for all the living as well. As custodians of this precarious habitat, we have a responsibility to protect it for all its inhabitants, and why shouldn’t we celebrate it? I could talk to you here about how 84% of European crops are pollinated by insects, the majority of which are in decline, or how nearly half of all pharmaceuticals are directly derived from natural products, or even how spending time in nature can improve our mental health. Each of these points highlights how despite our technology we are still as much a part of nature as ever, something that can be easy to forget.

And so we shall cut the grass in the late summer, after the flowers have flowered and the insects have completed their business to return next year, as has been the case in grasslands for millennia, and I encourage you on your next visit to take some time to stare more mindfully at the small, hidden details of our meadow and remember what William Henry Davis wrote:

“A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

Lady's bedstraw and field bindweed

Lady’s bedstraw and field bindweed


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