Wildlife in Cemeteries no 6 – a summer Sunday saunter

A wonderful and colourful display of hollyhocks over a grave in a clearing behind the Anglican chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

Summer is when you can really appreciate the wild corners and places within cemeteries.  Often spaces between tombstones and monuments will be left unmown or unscythed which allows grasses to grow tall.  The rapidly expanding bramble stands are good hiding places for foxes to hide in or use to travel between.   Already ripe, plump blackberries are dessert for hungry birds and jam makers.

Wildflowers begin to stud the grass and undergrowth with bright dots of colour as they bud and begin to flower under the summer sun’s rays.  These create dazzling combinations of colour as they grow together. At Kensal Green one area near the closed catacomb terrace is designated as a meadow.  I stood inside it in early July of this year, almost waist high in grass and flowers,  surrounded by flitting butterflies and day flying moths, leaping grasshoppers and even a large blue Emperor dragonfly.  The latter was a complete surprise.  There was even a pair of courting Small White butterflies as well.  I just felt so happy to be there with the sun on my face and nature getting on with itself regardless of me.

Ragwort, a bright yellow plant which is rampant at the moment, divides opinion in some quarters. It  has been described as a weed and a wildflower.  Butterflies love it but it’s poisonous to cattle and horses.  I counted 8 Gatekeepers on one Ragwort flower head munching away quite contentedly.  The cemeteries that I explored teamed with wildlife and sometimes unusual or uncommon specimens.

I am a Citizen Scientist (not the most catchiest of titles I must admit and it sounds somewhat po-faced)which means that I go about recording wildlife and what I see on my urban ramblings for various websites including irecord and the LondonButterflyProject. Cemeteries are highly recommended by the latter organisation as great places in which to find butterflies and now, I go to a cemetery or graveyard first, in order to do my count.

So here’s a gallery of what you might find on a sunny afternoon wander through a marble orchard.

NB: Be careful and take care if walking through or exploring areas of long grass and wildflowers as monuments can be camouflaged by them. So wear appropriate footwear – not flips-flops – and watch out for kerbstones and the edges of graves so that you don’t trip over them. Also, due to subsidence monuments can also be at odd angles so again take care.

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell

©Photos and text Carole Tyrrell

A murder in Brompton Cemetery! Wildlife in Cemeteries no 5

 

 

An ominous gathering of crows and possible juveniles on 21 May 2017..
©Carole Tyrrell

On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples.  On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials.  There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos.  My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.

Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.

A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.

The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486.  This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals.  These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’.  These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’.  There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc.  The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’.  A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.

There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,

 ‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’

Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd

However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.

A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents.  The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life.  They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators.  Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls.  A distress call will bring other crows to their aid   as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.

A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.

©Text and photo Carole Tyrrell

Reference:

https://www.quora.com/Why-is-a-group-of-crows-called-a-murder

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/a-murder-of-crows-crow-facts/5965/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

©Carole Tyrrell

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 4- Life and Death – springtime flowers

 

An April day in my local churchyard, St George’s and a profusion of Spring flowers on one grave.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Now that the spring equinox has arrived and winter seems to be coming to an end this is a good time to be visiting cemeteries.  The vegetation will have died back and you can often find little gems which would normally be covered by undergrowth.

But cemeteries also attract many spring flowers as I discovered when I went to photograph Dr James Barry’s tombstone  in Kensal Green cemetery recently.  It was a March day and was initially overcast. But eventually the sun decided to make an appearance despite the slight nip in the air.

As I walked up the main avenue to the Anglican Chapel I noticed that in some areas the large swathes of flowers almost flowed like a colourful carpet between the graves and memorials.  The   backdrop of grey granite, pensive angels, crosses, Turkish men and many others emphasised their bright colours.  Yellows, pinks, blues, whites and purples:  they were all reminders that life goes on.   Some graves were an absolute riot of nodding flower heads as the breeze made them move.

Snowdrops are often seen in churchyards. They are traditionally associated with Candlemas Day on February 2 and are often known as ‘the passing of sorrow.’ They are also called corpse flowers as the unopened bloom has been said to resemble a lifeless body in a shroud.

Here are some of the flowers that I saw, both in Kensal Green and also in my local churchyard:

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©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Wildlife in Cemeteries – No 4 – Cats

 

Flirtatious cat Woodbury Park cemetery Tunbridge Wells. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell
Flirtatious cat Woodbury Park cemetery note epitaph on tomb – ‘He that cometh to me.’Tunbridge Wells.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

A large, often quiet and deserted, cemetery or graveyard can be irresistible to an inquisitive feline.  Once young Tiddles or Baphomet, depending on your taste in names or cat, has exhausted neat suburban back gardens or annoyed the neighbours sufficiently they often like to explore farther afield.

A cemetery can also attract prey such as rodents or birds and so can be a happy hunting ground.  And of course it can be unrivalled as a place to hang out and just chill.

At West Norwood and Woodbury Park in Tunbridge Wells, for example, cats have only to climb through an iron railing or over a wall to gain access and the whole marble orchard is their domain.

And, if you know where to find them, the keen photographer can take some wonderful pictures.  I belong to a Facebook page called appropriately enough, Cemetery Cats, and features photos of cats roaming and often posing by pensive angels, monuments, crosses, or on monuments or just generally going about their lives.  Contributions are from all over the world; the UK, USA, Italy, France and Eastern Europe.

Here are a selection of my own favourite photos:

West Norwood cat peering in through the Gothic style railings - summer 2016. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell
West Norwood cat peering in through the Gothic style railings – summer 2016.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell
Taken in West Norwood Cemetery - Oct 16 - I'd seen him earlier with captured prey in his mouth. ©Carole Tyrrell
Taken in West Norwood Cemetery – Oct 16 – I’d seen him earlier with captured prey in his mouth.
©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 3 – butterflies and moths.

Cemeteries, and in particular large Victorian ones, often have areas which are either a designated nature reserve or just left to run wild.  These are havens to insect and mini-beasts and also to the dedicated lepidopterist or butterfly fancier.  On a long, warm, summer afternoon their tiny, colourful, patterned wings can be seen fluttering over their favourite foods such as the humble ragwort.  No wonder a group of them are described as a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

Commas, common and holly blues, large skippers, meadow browns, red admirals, gatekeepers and, if you’re lucky, the magnificent Peacock , are all summer visitors to cemeteries.

However, an increasingly common visitor, once rare, isn’t a butterfly at all but is, instead, a day-flying moth. This is a Jersey Tiger or Euplagia quadripunctaria to give it its Latin name. Its striped upper wings, when closed, give it the appearance of an African mask.  But it also has a surprise for, when in flight, it reveals its iridescent orange underwings.  When the sun catches them it’s like a small jewel on the wing.

This one obligingly posed on an inscription at Brompton Cemetery’s 2015 Open  Day.

Jersey Tiger day=flying moth - Brompton Cemetery Open Day 2015. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Jersey Tiger day=flying moth – Brompton Cemetery Open Day 2015.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

A lovely Peacock butterfly in Elmers End Cemetery.   When closed its wings are completely black and then open to show the beauty inside.

A beautiful peacock basking on a vault at Elmers End Cemetery, UK copyright Carole Tyrrell
A beautiful peacock basking on a vault at Elmers End Cemetery, UK
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is a gatekeeper roosting on its favourite food, the ragwort.  Although a common butterfly and sitting on what is generally considered to be a weed it does make for an effective composition. Again from a Brompton Cemetery Open Day in 2013.

Gatekeeper on ragwort - its favourite food! copyright Carole Tyrrell
Gatekeeper on ragwort – its favourite food!
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Below is a six spotted burnet – it’s dramatic red and black colouring always makes me think of it as a Goth Moth.   It is very impressive when it’s on the wing and is very fast.  I first saw it on an Open Day at Kensal Green Cemetery, London,  in 2013.  It was a warm and sunny July day and I was making my way to the open air colonnade when I saw a burnet fluttering past   I have only found it at one location within the cemetery so far but I always look out for it.

A six spotted burnet - a day flying moth. Latin name is: Zygaena filipendulae Copyright Carole Tyrrell
A six spotted burnet – a day flying moth.
Latin name is: Zygaena filipendulae
Copyright Carole Tyrrell

This was an unusual moth to find on a damp winter’s day in Nunhead Cemetery.  This is a lacewing.  Its Latin name is Neuroptera and it’s not known to be as a day flying moth.  It clung to the side of our gazebo for some time.

Lacewing moth at Nunhead Cemetery, UK. Usual to see on such a damp winters morning as it clung to our gazebo. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Lacewing moth at Nunhead Cemetery, UK. Usual to see one on such a damp winters morning as it clung to our gazebo.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

So although cemeteries are primarily to remember the dead, they can also provide a vital ecosystem as well.    Next time you visit one take some time to check out the wilder areas and you might be surprised at what you find!

 

All text and photographs © Carole Tyrrell

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Wildlife in cemeteries No 2 – a fine, fluffy red fox

 

Brompton Fox 3
Now you see me… copyright Carole Tyrrell

Although very much a controversial figure to some, the red fox or Vulpes Vulpes, its Latin name, has increasingly moved into towns and other urban areas. Like Marmite, you either love them or loathe them. I think you can guess which side I’m on.
However, as the concrete sprawl reaches out further and further their habitat grows smaller and they move into our territory as we moved into theirs.
About 10 or 15 years ago it was unusual to see foxes in towns but now it’s almost commonplace. Increased access to ready food sources such as takeaways etc mean that they know when a quick meal is easily available.
I myself have seen dozing foxes very close to railway lines and once had the privilege of seeing a vixen shepherding her little cubs, still in their dark brown coats, along a tram platform in SE London.
I saw this particular fox in a large central London Victorian cemetery over 2 weekends in October 2015. He didn’t seem to be too bothered about being in the presence of nearby humans and I managed to get up reasonably close to him.

Bromptonfox1
Here’s looking at you copyright Carole Tyrrell

But, on the second weekend, he did start becoming agitated about being pursued by photographers. I really felt sorry for him when a small dog started chasing him whilst barking furiously and, as he ran for shelter, hearing the dog’s owner say loudly ‘That fox is a coward’ Presumably if the fox had turned and retaliated then he would have been seen as the aggressor.
Urban nature can be very random. Earls Court was only 10 minutes walk away and the busy Kings Road a short bus ride from one of the entrance gates. To see a fox so near to the centre of London was quite a surprise.

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell