There can be few training day sessions that begin with one of those present quoting from the scriptures. But last Saturday at the parish church in Staverton the Venerable Douglas Dettmer, Archdeacon of Totnes and Exeter quoted a section of Isaiah 55 to a group of South Hams Tree Wardens:

“You will go out in joy

and be led forth in peace;

the mountains and hills

will burst into song before you,

and all the trees of the field

will clap their hands.”

He was joining them for a training day with a difference. They had come to to learn about the Exeter Diocese Living Churchyards Project and how they could help with its development. The Archdeacon is responsible for many of South Hams’s over 100 churchyards. Addressing the gathering before training began he emphasised the importance of trees to the identity of a place. He added how encouraged he was with the launch of ‘this significant and forward-looking project”.

Running the training day was the The Living Churchyards project leader, David Curry, Environmental Advisor for the Diocese of Exeter. He explained that the tree wardens role would be to audit the trees that are found in every parish church within the South Hams - an ambitious undertaking that has never been attempted before. It’s hoped that eventually the Diocese of Exeter will have a comprehensive record of the trees it owns, their age and their state of health. With the Church’s aim of becoming carbon zero by 2030 its mature trees are invaluable. Generally tree wardens keep watch over the trees in their area, including their parish churchyards, but with this project they are now being asked to map the churchyard trees in detail.

With formalities and introductions completed, the real work of the training day began. As this is a pilot project methods for gathering the necessary information had to be tested. Measurements have to be relatively simple to do as few of the wardens have professional training.

St Paul de Leon churchyard had been chosen for this meeting as all of its trees were assessed a few years ago. With measurements already done by a trained arboriculturalist the wardens could compare their calculations against those done by a qualified tree specialist.

Amongst the many tips that David Curry gave the group was how to draw the boundary of the churchyard using Google maps. He also explained how to use tape measures (these were provided) to find out the girth of a tree - a handy tool for knowing its age. But how do you measure the height and spread of a large mature tree he was asked? Mobile phone apps have made this task easier for some whereas others could try different ways. And what about the age of a tree which obviously varies between species? Luckily two of the wardens attending had expert tree knowledge and were on hand to advise and give extra help.

After all the hard work, and a great deal of encouragement, the group adjourned to Staverton’s Sea Trout Inn for some well earned refreshment. There were further discussions about what they had learnt before returning home to set about the task of trying to implement the same procedures in their own parish churchyards.