Heene Cemetery is officially designated a site of nature conservation importance. When it was opened in 1873 there would have been little thought given to making the site accommodating to wildlife, for there was no wildlife extinction crisis then as there is now. The prevailing view in the late 19th century was that an urban green space should be planted with fashionable, ‘exotic’ foreign and cultivated trees, shrubs and other flowering-plants so as to display attractive flowers and foliage, and to provide shade for visitors in what was created to have a pleasant, quasi-rural aspect. There were few concerns about declining populations of wildlife in urban areas, or indeed in the countryside. Worthing’s private gardens were planted and managed in the same way as the cemetery would have been, with plants from horticultural suppliers, which were unfamiliar to wildlife, and unsuitable in that they did not provide the habitat and food resources that our native species have evolved to depend upon. In Victorian times wildlife began to retreat from urban green spaces.
Traditional garden maintenance, as it developed during the 20th century, became more and more hostile to wildlife, and as wild populations declined in the countryside because of pressure from an expanding human population; habitat loss through overdevelopment; pollution of soil, water courses, and atmosphere; chemical poisoning from herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides; and invasion by vigorous, non-native plant species; the potential of a large number of urban gardens as wildlife refuges desperately needed to be recognised and utilised lest our urban areas become devoid of once familiar birds, butterflies, and our other wild companions.
The natural maintenance techniques used in the management of Heene Cemetery have now become an important model for Worthing’s garden owners to emulate if wildlife is to return to the town’s green spaces. Whilst there are foreign and cultivated plants in the cemetery – planted some time ago – no more will be planted. A maintenance programme to favour and encourage native plants is now the mainstay of the restoration work. No chemicals of any kind are used in the cemetery, and soil disturbance is avoided as far as possible. The organisms in soil communities are vital to establish food chains and maintain soil fertility. Different organisms live and function at different depths, so unnecessary soil disturbance disrupts these communities and therefore reduces soil quality and fertility. What is often the case is that hardy foreign plants cope better with unnatural deprivation than our native plants, and so the latter are forced into decline.
Many other aspects of traditional urban garden maintenance are of little or no benefit to wildlife, such as manicured lawns; paths, paving, and decking that restrict aeration and drainage, and cover soil; and incessant tidiness that means an absence of cover for large numbers of small vulnerable species vital to food chains, and the denial of natural recycling by fungi and other decomposing agents. In Heene Cemetery grasses are allowed to grow to maturity, thereby allowing female butterflies to lay their eggs, for many of our butterflies have caterpillars whose food plants are grasses. Similarly, the much-despised nettles and brambles are important caterpillar food plants, and unless we tolerate them those butterflies will continue to decline. The cutting of grasses and other wildflowers in the cemetery is done only as part of a seasonal cycle of regeneration to save their seeds, thereby ensuring habitat continuity. The use of cutting and uprooting tools is done only to encourage beneficial growth and regeneration, or to remove competition from introduced species. In the cemetery there are only natural paths, and whilst we ensure that graves are respectfully treated, in other areas plant debris is dealt with by nature, thus ensuring the healthy population of microorganisms, fungi, and invertebrates that distinguishes the cemetery from a typical urban garden. Garden owners have a choice. Either they have a neat and tidy garden or they have wildlife. They can’t have both.
It is the aim of the Friends of Heene Cemetery that the reservoir of native species that is now thriving in the cemetery should be the source of migration of wildlife to neighbouring gardens and beyond, and that the management techniques used should be widely employed throughout Worthing. This is not just ecologically desirable, but essential if we are to reverse the dramatic decline in our urban wildlife communities. Every single UK butterfly species is now threatened, and nearly sixty bird species in Sussex are red-listed. The more our gardens resemble countryside rather than personal aesthetic ideals the more wildlife they will attract. Gardens full of foreign and cultivated plants are high in their maintenance requirements, whereas native plants look after themselves, as they are in their natural environment, subject to natural checks and balances. An all native garden is one of mutual dependency; all you have to do is sit back and enjoy it.
In 1873 when the cemetery was founded Worthing’s gardens were full of bird song, resplendent with colourful butterflies, and buzzing with bees. Not any more. We have but a short time to change our ways and manage our gardens primarily for wildlife before they become barren, silent sentinels to an opportunity missed that can never be reclaimed.
Written by Brian Day