Page last updated at 10:13 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 11:13 UK

Graveyard sheep spark church row

Sheep generic
Relatives claim the sheep are eating flowers left on graves

Sheep being used by a church in East Sussex to tend the grass in its graveyard have led some relatives to accuse the authorities of disrespect.

St Mary's Church, in Tarring Neville, near Newhaven, has brought in the two ewes and two lambs to keep the grass short during the summer months.

But families of the deceased claim the sheep are not under control, are eating floral tributes and walking on graves.

The church said it had consulted on the use of the sheep, and many welcomed it.

It explained that as well as proving to be popular with visitors, it was a return to more ancient ways and cheaper than using a gardener to cut the grass.

They've ripped up plants several times... and we can't tend our graves
Ray Baker

The sheep, which are on loan for free from a local farmer, have been brought in to graze the grass at the back of the graveyard, while the area at the front is still cut by a lawnmower.

But Ray Baker said the sheep were unwelcome, and were "literally trampling over the graves, especially my grandparents' graves".

"They've ripped up plants several times... and we can't tend our graves."

Mr Baker said that as well as leaving droppings, the sheep had also broken some of the ancient tombs and dug away at the shingle on some of them.

"They want to keep the front of the church looking nice... but at the back, you just sweep it under the carpet," he added.

'Buried with sheep'

In a statement, a diocesan spokesman said it had never been the intention "to create difficulties or show any disrespect for the deceased".

He said the decision to introduce sheep on a temporary basis to tend parts of the churchyard was taken following consultation with the Archdeacon of Lewes and Hastings, who had been fully supportive.

Since their introduction, he said there had been many favourable comments from parishioners and some had "even expressed their desire to be buried with the sheep".

"The thinking has been to return the churchyard to the way it would have been for many hundreds of years, until the invention of mechanical devices for tending grass.

"Currently the western side of the churchyard has been left to go 'wild', the lower south side is being cut and the remainder grazed."

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