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Letting sheep graze on consecrated ground is not disrespectful, diocesan Chancellor rules

15 February 2019

Limited number of sheep allowed to graze ‘in a controlled manner’ in rural churchyards


IN A rural churchyard, it is not disrespectful to allow a limited number of sheep to graze in a controlled manner on consecrated ground, the Chancellor of the diocese of Manchester has ruled.

He granted a faculty last autumn for the introduction of eight to ten sheep in the churchyard of St Chad’s, Saddleworth, to keep the vegetation under control.

St Chad’s, which is Grade II listed, dates from 1830, but there has been a church on the present site since about 1215. The PCC of St Chad’s is responsible for the upkeep of three moorland graveyards. The one under consideration for a faculty dated from the late 1800s to the 1950s, and is situated a distance from the church building. It covers three-and-a-half to four acres, and contains about 5500 graves.

It is still used, very occasionally, for burials in existing graves and the interment of ashes. The graves are still visited by family members and by genealogists. The other two graveyards are smaller.

All three graveyards were overgrown, as the PCC could not afford to pay for maintenance; nor did they have the staff to keep the vegetation under control. Consequently the PCC received many complaints.

The Team Rector, Canon Sharon Jones, and two churchwardens (“the petitioners”) applied for a faculty to introduce sheep into the largest graveyard, because that would be at nil cost. It already had electric sheep-fencing from previous use when, with the help of a farmer, sheep were introduced and enclosed. That worked well until the sheep were temporarily moved in 2001. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease kept them away longer.

The PCC was distressed and embarrassed by the current state of the graveyard, and felt that the only solution was to reintroduce the sheep. If that was successful, the practice would be repeated in the other two graveyards. The sheep would be on loan from, and tended by, a local farmer.

The fencing would be moved regularly at the discretion of the farmer. Notices would be placed on the fencing and the graveyard entry points, alerting visitors to the sheep and the fencing.

After the display of a public notice, the Diocesan Registrar received an email from Christine Anne Cummings, whose husband’s grave was in one of the other graveyards. She complained that sheep and horses had got into the graveyard and had eaten the flowers that had been placed on the graves. She argued that, if sheep were introduced, “They will simply devour all the fresh flowers and only eat the grass when all the flowers are gone.” She also said that it was “disrespectful to deliberately introduce sheep into consecrated ground”.

The petitioners said that the sheep would be placed in areas where the graves were not visited and which were devoid of flowers. The Chancellor, Geoffrey Tattersall QC, said that this was a “sensible safeguard”, which mitigated Mrs Cummings’s concerns. In any event, her husband was interred in a different, albeit adjacent, graveyard into which no sheep would be introduced.

In a rural area such as Saddleworth, it was not disrespectful, the Chancellor said, to allow a limited number of sheep to graze in the controlled manner suggested by the petitioners. Although it could be argued that that there was a possibility that the sheep might escape into adjacent graveyards, that was “a risk which those who choose to reside in delightful rural areas such as Saddleworth inevitably subject themselves to”.

The faculty was granted, subject to the conditions that the petitioners erected notices warning of the electric sheep-fencing, as their insurers required, and that the petitioners made all reasonable efforts to ensure, so far as was possible, that flowers left on graves were not available to be eaten by the sheep. The petitioners were given permission to enter into a grazing licence.

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