Conservation Officials to Revert Land Near Stonehenge to Natural State

The 420 acres, acquired by the UK National Trust, will be restored as native chalk grassland.

Stonehenge, aerial view, with sunrise

Gavin Hellier / robertharding / Getty Images

The U.K. National Trust is turning back the clock on additional vast swaths of land surrounding the prehistoric monument of Stonehenge. The conservation and heritage charity, which has managed the ancient site on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, for nearly a century, will work to return the newly-acquired acreage to the way it existed prior to modern agricultural practices. 

"We have been working for years to revert more of the Stonehenge world heritage site to chalk grassland which, as well as protecting the archaeology, will allow nature to thrive," Rebecca Burton, regional director at the National Trust, told the Guardian. "It will mean people will be able to experience a landscape that would have been more familiar to the builders of Stonehenge."

The two new tracts of protected land, encompassing more than 420 acres, include a portion of the Avenue, a Bronze-age route to Stonehenge from the River Avon, as well as a Neolithic feasting pit. In total, six key monuments have been protected by the purchase and will subsequently be removed from Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register. 

A Living Window Into the Past

Chalk grassland in England

Colin Smith / Wikimedia Commons

In tandem with the preservation of ancient sites is the conservation effort to experience them through the lens of the region’s natural habitat. For the Salisbury Plain, that means reverting land impacted by modern farming back to the former chalk grasslands that once dominated. These vital habitats, found only in northwest Europe, support a diverse range of flora and fauna, many of which exist nowhere else. While traditional grazing practices for centuries kept impact to a wildlife-friendly level, improvements in farming efficiency and chemical applications after World War II resulted in the loss of some 80% of England’s chalk grasslands. 

"Chalk downland is just one example of declining grassland habitat," Matthew Shepherd, director of outreach and education for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, writes. "Wherever they occur, whatever they are called—meadows, prairies, savannas, heaths—grasslands are among the most threatened habitats, prone to plowing, 'improvement,' development, and loss of diversity through simple neglect. Maintaining them often relies on stopping the encroachment of scrub or woods, preventing the grass from becoming overgrown, and keeping nutrient levels low, but the reward is some of the most strikingly beautiful landscapes, awash with color from flowers and insects."

For the last two decades, the National Trust has been working to revert over 2,000 acres surrounding Stonehenge back to its grassland roots. The process, which takes at least three years to show results, involves ending arable farming practices, sowing the land back to grass, and re-introducing low-intensity grazing from sheep and cattle. Wildflower and grass seeds from existing species-rich chalk grassland are also sourced to serve as a foundation. 

"By returning them to species-rich chalk grassland we’re both making a home for nature, and ensuring the stories this landscape holds will be here for everyone to discover and enjoy long into the future," Dr. Nick Snashall, a National Trust archaeologist, said in a statement.

View Article Sources
  1. Fry, Ellen L., et al. "Soil Multifunctionality and Drought Resistance are Determined by Plant Structural Traits in Restoring Grassland.Ecology, vol. 99, no. 10, 2018, pp. 2260-2271., doi:10.1002/ecy.2437