By John O’Sullivan

The small nature reserve surrounding the historic medieval church of St Denis may not be as striking a place as the nearby Buff Wood (with its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest) but this little patch of grassland is full of interest nonetheless and worth a visit at any time of year.

Bank vole – part of the natural scene around Hatley St George and St Denis' church in East Hatley. Photo by John O'Sullivan.

Bank vole.
Photo: John O’Sullivan.

It’s a Local Nature Reserve, a County Wildlife Site and a churchyard open for burials, owned by Gamlingay with Hatley St George and East Hatley Parochial Church Council (based at St Mary’s, Gamlingay).

In winter, handsome fieldfares come to feed on the berries of the hedgerow hawthorns.  Flocks of tits, including the endearing long-tailed tit, comb the bare branches for insects and other food.

Large flocks of pigeons, rooks and jackdaws pass over on their way to roost in nearby woodland and after dark the hooting of tawny owls is frequently heard.  The grasses and flowering plants lie dormant.

In spring, the territorial mewing of a buzzard may draw your attention to the bird circling overhead.

The wild primulas flower now, so very welcome, and there are always plenty of primroses and cowslips.  The much scarcer oxlip may also still appear but beware of the so-called ‘false oxlip’, a hybrid of primrose and cowslip: a true oxlip has flowers that grow in one-sided clusters – see illustration.

Bee orchid in St Denis churchyard, East Hatley. Photo by Nicola Jenkins.

Bee orchid.
Photo: Nicola Jenkins.

Look out, too, for the lovely Star of Bethlehem with its brilliant white flowers. In late spring, spectacular bee orchids (left) and pale pink or white common spotted orchids catch the attention.

Seasonal butterflies include the striking, springtime orange-tip and the brimstone, which has both a spring and a summer brood.  On fine evenings, bats may be seen flying around the churchyard and at least four species are known to roost in the church building.

Other native mammals are rarely seen here but the reserve is visited by badgers and foxes, perhaps hunting the voles that live in the grassland.  They do not predate the non-native muntjac, a small deer introduced into Britain in the 20th century, unloved in high densities by some because their diet of tender shoots and flora damages our local woods – as well as our gardens.


Red kite – part of the natural scene around Hatley St George and St Denis' church in East Hatley. Photo by John O'Sullivan.

Red kite.
Photo: John O’Sullivan.

In summer, the red kite often patrols at low level over the village.  Having only arrived here in the teens of this century from reintroduction programmes elsewhere, it is now a frequent sight but still draws admiring comments for its graceful shape and flight.

The local crows don’t see things that way and pursue and mob the kite with raucous calls which may well be the first thing to draw our attention to the bird.

The greatest flyers, indeed capable of spending literally years without landing, are the swifts high in the air above the reserve.  They nest in just a few buildings in Hatley, arriving in May and leaving by early August.

Rarely seen but certainly present in the moat adjacent to the church are frogs, toads, and newts, including the rare great crested newt which has special protection nationally.

Among the many butterflies, the attractive marbled white is another recent natural arrival in these parts: unrelated to the ‘cabbage’ whites, its caterpillars feed not on our greens but on wild grasses.

A great variety of such grasses grow vigorously in the churchyard, including a patch of the distinctive and attractive quaking grass near the north corner of the church, just under the small yew tree.


Hornet mimic Volucella zonaria hoverfly – part of the natural scene around Hatley St George and St Denis' church in East Hatley. Photo by John O'Sullivan.

A hornet hoverfly.
Photo: John O’Sullivan.

Autumn is a time of marked change, including of course in the colours of the vegetation.

Now is a good time to see the reserve’s spindle trees, when their leaves are russet and their remarkable bright pink fruits in a four-lobed capsule with orange seeds ripen on the branches.

The churchyard ivy plants flower late and host numerous insects, including spectacular red admiral butterflies and Britain’s largest hoverfly, the hornet mimic Volucella zonaria – thankfully, they are not really as large as the photo might suggest!

As the days shorten, the loud chacking calls of the fieldfares arriving from Scandinavia and Russia signal that winter is returning.

Many plants and animals reduce their activity, to the extent of some species becoming invisible though still very much present and awaiting the spring.

4. Cave spider Meta-bourneti, with beetle prey. The spider lives in a small colony under St Denis' church in East Hatley, Cambridgeshire. Photo: John O’Sullivan.

Cave spider Meta-bourneti with beetle prey.
Photo: John O’Sullivan.

All year round, and out of public sight, another creature lives beneath the church itself – the cave spider.  If you are not squeamish, you can read about it here.

These are just a few examples of the wild plants and animals that occur in the churchyard.  You are always welcome to come and see what you can find for yourself.

It may seem odd, but the great majority of nature reserves need to be managed by people.

Most such places become scrub and woodland if left alone and great numbers of non-woodland species would then be lost.  The management of this reserve is mainly designed to ensure that flowering plants and grasses can continue to flourish.

Managing the graveyard

St Denis' church, East Hatley, Cambridgeshire – south west elevation, 5th August 2020. The building (but not the churchyard) is owned by the Friends of Friendless Churches – which still requires a substantial sum of money to complete the restoration of the chancel to how William Butterfield left it after his complete restoration of the church in 1874.

St Denis’ church.
Photo: Peter Mann.

An important consideration is that since the site continues to be used as a graveyard, visiting, and tending to the graves needs to be enabled.  A management plan with a mowing regime has been was drawn up by the local district council’s ecology officer and endorsed by our local Wildlife Trust and local Parochial Church Council.

The Friends of Friendless Churches, a national charity, owns the church building (not the graveyard) and all parties are working well together to ensure the best possible outcomes for the site as a whole – this page (on the churchyard) includes links to species lists and surveys of the churchyard.

The annual schedule of reserve management work goes something like this (nature and weather permitting!):

At the end of winter, a partial cut of the reserve may be made and some of the more dominant species such as bramble and scrub cut back from the grassland and graves.

In late April or early May, a partial cut will usually be made, avoiding the areas with scarcer plants.  In July, when all the plants have had a chance to seed, the hay is cut across the whole site to preserve the structure of the grassland.

In September, a further cut is undertaken, allowing some small areas to remain tall over the winter.

Trees and a special mower
Management of the trees that surround the churchyard, including elms that are vulnerable to disease, is carried out from time to time, always, of course, with care to avoid damage to the interest of the churchyard itself.

The reserve’s management work, from planning and monitoring through to mechanical and manual labour, is almost entirely done by volunteers.

The reserve has its own specialist scissor mower, ideal for meadow management and coping with long grass.  Villagers have been generous with their own equipment but especially with their time.

If you are interested in being involved, please let us know by e-mailing Nicola Jenkins St Denis’ LNR organiser.


Bird and insect photos: John O’Sullivan
Flowers and grasses: Nicola Jenkins

Click here for our St Denis’ churchyard photo gallery

Page created 21st September 2020; minor update 24th June 2021.