A Cheltenham teenager with a passion for ecology is challenging his church community to make greater efforts for the environment. A quiet time spent reflecting in the churchyard at St Peter’s Church, Leckhampton, inspired Ben Gilchrist to record and share the variety of nature he could see around him.
Ben’s passion for nature has been a lifelong joy for him, starting when he was a very small child.
“At the age of 6, when I was on holiday, I noticed a bird that I didn’t recognise. I looked it up in a book and was incredibly surprised to see the variety of birds there were. I felt this sense of possibilities unfolding in front of me. My experience up until then was just of a few birds… woodpeckers… common birds, and I had never imagined there were all these different species out there. It’s true that the more you start to look, the more you find.”
Before long, Ben had memorized all the birds in his book and started to move on to identifying plants.
But the neatly trimmed grass in his local churchyard, where he has been a member of the choir most of his life, caused him some concern.
Ben said, “I looked at this huge area of land around the church, just being mown to within an inch of its life most weeks. There is just one small section of about 20m2 that is left unmown. As I started observing, I noticed that there was such a tremendous difference in the number of species present in the unmown part compared with the mown part.”
The church already holds a bronze Eco Award, but not everyone in the local community saw eye to eye with Ben. He knew he would have to work hard to help convince a few local people of the value of a wilder churchyard.
He said, “There are some people who love seeing a neat and well-mown churchyard. I do understand that it looks tidy, but I think trying to save the planet is more interesting and important.”
To try to convince his community of the need for change, Ben resolved to take a survey of all the plants in the churchyard, recording where each was found. “There were only about four species per m2 in the short grass compared with 20 in the long grass.”
Ben has listed over 100 flowering plants, including ferns and some naturalised plants and is keen to encourage more species into the churchyard.
“When I’m looking at green spaces and identifying plants, I have a dual feeling – the pleasure at being in a green space but also the excitement of looking up new things and finding out about what I see.
“I hope that if we create a tradition of surveying the species a couple of times a year, we might be more inspired to think about how we can improve things. I think it’s really important to do just a little bit more to improve what we see around us.”
Ben will be attending a church meeting to discuss and encourage more action to make the church more environmentally friendly.
He said, “I’m going to suggest that we extend the unmown area, mow less and not at all in winter, not mow so close and perhaps scatter some wildflower seeds and put up some nesting boxes.
“It currently feels like we are in a battle against nature, and it shouldn’t be that way.
“I think the environmental agenda is pushing aside all other problems now. It’s categorically the biggest problem the world is facing right now, and we need to do everything we can.”
The Revd Gary Grady said, “We have this year appointed an environmental officer to the PCC at St Peter’s to help push the green agenda forward. The whole church has recognised how important this is and, with the help of Ben, we are actively pursuing the eco-church silver award. In support of this, we have kept the season of Creationtide over the past 5 weeks, beginning with Climate Sunday and ending with our Harvest Festival last Sunday; during that time, the Revd Jacqueline (Henson) and I have been ‘greening our preaching’ in support of this, and will continue to do so as the months and beauty of the seasons unfold around us.”
Ben, 18, has just completed his A-Levels in Chemistry, Biology, English and Music at Pate’s Grammar School and is taking a gap year to earn some money and experience life abroad. He hopes to read English at university next year.
He is an accomplished singer and musician, singing in his church choir, deputising as a lay clerk in the Gloucester Cathedral choir and last year was the organ scholar for St Peter’s Church, Leckhampton. He has strong links with the church through his love of music and the church’s place in the community. He has also done some volunteering for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.