The United Kingdom’s National Trust has been assigned to protect and maintain England’s most famous monumental site at Stonehenge, and the challenges they face are never-ending. The National Trust must monitor not just what happens at the site itself, but they must also manage developments in the surrounding countryside. This high level of diligence is necessary to make sure the complete historical and cultural legacy of Stonehenge is preserved for the benefit of archaeologists, ancient historians, and future generations of visitors to the site.
To further their mission, the National Trust recently agreed to purchase two new areas of land near Stonehenge in order to save them from continuing agricultural exploitation. These new trust acquisitions will cover 420 acres (170 hectares) of land, which would be enough space to hold more than 300 soccer or American football fields. With the National Trust already managing approximately 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of land around the Stonehenge site, this means the new acquisition will increase the area they must protect and preserve by more than 15 percent.
National Trust archaeologist Dr. Nick Snashall walking on the West Amesbury land, part of a new grassland reversion area of the Stonehenge landscape. (James Dobson / National Trust )
Honoring and Protecting the Astonishing Heritage of Stonehenge
One of the areas bought by the National Trust was a section of the Avenue , a 1.5-mile (2.4-kilometer) pathway that directly connects the Stonehenge monuments with the banks of the River Avon. The National Trust already has control over most of the Avenue, and this purchase will allow them to supervise its usage along its entire length.
The other piece of land included in the purchase is a Neolithic period feasting pit at Coneybury, which is about a mile (1.6 kilometers) southeast of Stonehenge. Excavations at this location unearthed the bones of cattle raised by ancient farmers and the bones of deer that were killed and eaten by hunter-gatherers. This suggests that the ancient Coneybury feasting place was the equivalent of a modern park or picnic area, where Neolithic groups could gather and share food, conversation, and recreation.
In addition to its proximity to Stonehenge, there is a second ceremonial henge located adjacent to the Coneybury pit is also adjunct to a second ceremonial henge or ancient worship site. This henge was constructed in approximately 2,700 BC, possibly at the same time as Stonehenge and perhaps even by the same team of builders.
Map showing the new grassland reversion areas around Stonehenge. ( National Trust )
The National Trust plans to return each of these areas to their natural chalk grassland state, recreating the natural ecology that existed on the Salisbury Plan in Wiltshire thousands of years ago. “It will mean people will be able to experience a landscape that would have been more familiar to the builders of Stonehenge,” said National Trust regional director Rebecca Burton, in the organization’s press release announcing the new land acquisition.
The purchase of the land was made possible by a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF), an organization dedicated to the preservation of the United Kingdom’s incredible bounty of historically and archaeologically irreplaceable sites. “We at the National Heritage Memorial Fund are proud to help the National Trust secure the future of more of the Stonehenge Landscape, one of the world’s most famous and important archaeological sites,” said Dr. Simon Thurley, the NHMF chairperson.
“Thanks to our support, prehistoric monuments at risk will be safeguarded, ecological habitats will be protected and improved, and in time, greater access will be possible,” concluded the NHMF chairperson. Eventually, visitors will be able to pass through the newly-acquired areas on their way to visit Stonehenge’s iconic monuments. When they do, they will see and experience Stonehenge from the same perspective as the original builders, as if they were traveling back in time to an era before human activities had dramatically altered England’s rural landscape.
The National Trust plans to restore the natural chalk grassland ecosystem that existed on the Salisbury Plan in Wiltshire thousands of years ago. ( Nicholas / Adobe Stock)
A Cultural, Historical, Archaeological, and Environmental Mission
The National Trust is not exclusively concerned with preserving culture and history. It is just as dedicated to protecting and restoring the United Kingdom’s damaged natural ecology, which has been badly compromised by urban and rural development initiatives since the 1800s. Over the past two decades, the National Trust has been carrying out one of the largest grassland reversion programs taking place anywhere in Europe—and it has been doing this primarily on Stonehenge-related land.
Thanks to this ongoing effort, a significant quantity of grassland around Stonehenge has already been restored to chalk grassland. This ecosystem is home to a broad range of animal and plant species, including skylarks, Adonis blue butterflies, brown hares, and wildflowers like the sainfoin, prickly poppy, and cowslip.
The National Trust’s success in this area is not a minor accomplishment. In the seven-plus decades that have passed since the end of World War II, the United Kingdom has lost more than 80 percent of its chalk grassland. Of that which has been preserved, about half can be found in Wiltshire, the county in southwestern England where Stonehenge is located.
In recent years, the newly-purchased land had been heavily ploughed and used for planting wheat.
“Arable farming can be hugely damaging to archaeology,” explained Dr. Nick Snahsall, the National Trust’s lead archaeologist at the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site. “Year after year erasing more and more of the story of the people who built and used the awe-inspiring monuments in this globally important landscape. So, it’s fantastic news that we’ve been able to take the single most important step in protecting these sites in decades, by bringing this additional land into our care.”
Under National Trust authority the land will be removed from cultivation immediately, and gradually restored to its natural grassland state over the next three years.
To complete the transition back to grassland, the Trust will sow the land with grass, in preparation for the eventual arrival of cattle that will graze on the grass fields (this type of agricultural activity does not destroy grasslands the same way ploughing does). Later on wildflower seeds from other chalk grasslands in the UK will be imported and planted, bringing the land that much closer to a fully restored and fully realized natural ecological state.
Once the grassland ecosystem has become well established, the land can be opened again to visitors, who will be free to tour the broader Stonehenge area to enhance the overall immersion experience. The changes will benefit archaeologists as well, since they won’t have to compete with wheat farmers for access to land that may still hold undiscovered archaeological treasures.
“By returning them [the newly-purchased areas] 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. Snashall said, speaking on behalf of the National Trust as a whole.
If necessary, in the years to come the National Trust may purchase additional land in Wiltshire county. The organization will do whatever it takes to preserve Stonehenge, for as long as the people of England—and the rest of the world—remain eager to visit the enigmatic site to ponder its meaning and contemplate the mysteries of its construction .
Top image: The National Trust has bought land near Stonehenge to protect it from continued agricultural exploitation. Source: Nicholas / Adobe Stock
By Nathan Falde