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Bury St Edmunds columnist Nicola Miller says there's a happy medium between grass mowing and rewilding

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I’ve been keeping an eye on the current debate about how our council maintains our grassed public areas and it seems to have degenerated into a binary argument between those who favour a wilder look, and those who prefer something more manicured. But as writer Thom Eagle says:

“There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade.”

I’m very fond of the King’s Road Cemetery just steps away from my house; it’s a lovely place to walk first thing in the morning and just before dusk when the yew trees cast their longest shadows and the hedgehogs (which seem to be increasingly active there) come out to feed.

Bury cemetery (13697977)
Bury cemetery (13697977)

This seems to be a place where there is relative harmony between the two kinds of managed landscape. Parts of the cemetery are left unmown during the late spring and summer and are set against areas of manicured grass and pruned yews which surround graves of more recent history. These are bisected by Tarmacked paths, mown grass paths and foot-worn desire lines: the places where humans take their short cuts.

West Suffolk Council has taken a lot of flak recently with regard to the maintenance of our greenswards but they seem to be doing a good job in this cemetery, operating as they do within the limitations imposed by our government’s austerity cuts, the vagaries of the weather, and recent contract changes. If a happy medium between these two kinds of urban landscape exist, this is it.

I contacted the council and a spokesperson listed some of the plant species found in the cemetery, and I’m reproducing it verbatim here because their names are glorious poetry: bulbous buttercup, oxeye daisy, lady’s bedstraw, black knapweed, meadow saxifrage, field scabious, red clover, white clover and bristly ox tongue daisy. Then there’s Common mouse –ear, yarrow, germander speedwell, ribwort plantain, hoary plantain, yarrow, burnet-saxifrage, sheep’s sorrel, ground ivy, cowslip, creeping cinquefoil, common fumitory, mouse-ear hawkweed, groundsel, selfheal, common cat’s ear, perforate St John’s wort, goatsbeard, and green alkanet. The list goes on and on.

We are aware of all this wildlife because of the careful surveying of the cemetery by the Park Rangers and regular wildlife audits carried out by Suffolk Wildlife Trust. Next time you’re there, look and marvel at the skill it takes to encourage and maintain such diversity: this is not the inexpensive option so many people believe it to be. You can’t just leave an area unmown and expect it to repopulate with the diversity it once would have possessed before we came along and left our footprint.

I have heard green woodpeckers in the trees, but I didn’t know the council deliberately ensures anthills are left among the wildflowers because they provide these birds with ground feeding. There’s wildlife among the manicured gravesites, too (I have seen tiny lizards basking on gravestones, thick patches of acid-bright stonecrop, foraging shrews, and bats swooping over the clouds of insects at dusk), but the areas of long grass and wildflowers attract far more. Around a quarter of the wildflower meadow is left uncut to provide seed heads for the birds and a refuge for invertebrates and their eggs, reptiles, and mammals. And are cut in July and then mid-autumn to vary the habitats provided, the council tells me.

All of this could be described as nature in an idealised form to a certain extent, an argument that I think applies to much of our British ‘wilderness’ of late. We’ve gone too far to rewild in any kind of meaningful way unless we reduce our population by drastic numbers, but I think it is possible to use the King’s Road Cemetery as a template for the management of other green spaces in our town.

-- Find more of Nicola's views on our Opinion pages