Is it right to allow the ‘rewilding’ of East Devon’s cemeteries?

Overgrown graves at Sidmouth Cemetery. Picture: Jenny Ware

Overgrown graves at Sidmouth Cemetery. Picture: Jenny Ware - Credit: Archant

Should East Devon’s cemeteries be allowed to become overgrown with wild plants and flowers, to provide habitats for birds, butterflies and other insects?

Or are they inappropriate locations for ‘rewilding’, when there are many other parks and public spaces where nature can thrive?

Before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, East Devon District Council (EDDC) was drawing up a plan for managing green spaces in an environmentally-sensitive way, in keeping with the Government’s plan for ‘nature recovery networks’.

The plan would have been put before councillors and, if agreed, it would have been publicised, with signs put up to inform the public.

But when lockdown happened, council maintenance work on parks and cemeteries was suspended, and rewilding happened by default. In the absence of lawnmowers and strimmers, nature took over, with wild flowers and grasses flourishing.

The overgrown state of Sidmouth’s cemetery over the last few months has caused distress to a town councillor whose mother is buried there.

Cllr Jenny Ware said she was ‘all for ecology’, but questioned whether EDDC, which is responsible for managing the cemetery, was using current concerns about the environment as an excuse to avoid spending public money maintaining it.

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EDDC rejected this, saying some maintenance work was imminent, but added that some older parts of the cemetery had been allowed to ‘rewild’, as the graves were not often visited.

When photos of the cemetery were shared on social media, some people agreed that the overgrown plants should be cut back, with one person saying it was ‘awful - shouldn’t be allowed to get into that state’.

But others supported the idea of a graveyard becoming a haven for wildlife.

The comments included: ‘How beautiful to be resting in a summer meadow’, ‘I hope life is allowed to thrive on top of my grave’, and ‘We have two relatives up there and I’m pretty sure they would have loved it’.

The chair of Sidmouth Town Council’s environment committee, Denise Bickley, had contributed to EDDC’s ‘rewilding’ plans, and acknowledged that the management of cemeteries is ‘an emotive subject with no simple answer at the moment’.

She said: “I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as to a lot of people the sounds of nature are very restful. It’s difficult because to me it (Sidmouth cemetery) looks utterly beautiful… It’s going to be a tricky subject to balance, but I’m sure we will manage it with some conversations over the next few months.”