Looking after Scheduled Monuments

Mags Waughman – Monument Management Scheme Officer

A green bracken covered hillside in the sunshine would be seen by many visitors to the National Park as an unspoilt piece of countryside, but how many would imagine that bracken is actually Public Enemy No. 1 for rural archaeological sites?

Bracken has its place in biodiversity, but in the wrong location it can be very destructive for the historic environment. Because of the way the underground parts of the plant (the rhizomes) develop and spread, this inoffensive looking plant can cause enormous damage to fragile deposits and features below the ground surface. So the alarm bells start ringing when I see bracken growing on some of the best-preserved sites across the National Park, many of which are protected in law as Scheduled Monuments because they are considered to be nationally important.

Organising the treatment and control of bracken growing on Scheduled Monuments has been a big part of my work as Monument Management Scheme Officer over the summer. I’ve often felt daunted by the sheer expanses of bracken hiding what I know to be wonderful archaeological sites and have had a number of unpleasant experiences pushing my way through waist-high bracken fronds. However, with a little perseverance and the goodwill and cooperation of very many people we’ve arranged for bracken to be sprayed on 35 Monuments this summer and I think we’re starting to have an effect. Landowners and farmers, partner organisations such as Natural England, the National Trust and the Forestry Commission, archaeological consultants, land management contractors and my colleagues in the National Park have all helped in the targeted battle against the bracken. From Bronze Age burial mounds and prehistoric field systems to medieval rabbit warrening features and 18th century alum working sites – many different types of site have needed attention and I’m hoping that when I go back to these Monuments next summer I will be able to see archaeology where I could only see bracken this year. Our fight against the bracken has been possible because of the North York Moors National Park Monument Management Scheme (MMS). This programme was set up in 2009 in partnership with English Heritage in order to improve the condition of Scheduled Monuments on the Heritage at Risk register, which is published annually by English Heritage to highlight the Monuments across the country considered to be most under threat. The aim of the MMS is to remove as many Monuments as possible from the Heritage at Risk register by improving their condition. The risk is the possibility of the destruction and loss of nationally important Monuments. The MMS is now into its fifth year and it’s working very well – helping landowners and farmers to improve the condition of Monuments on their land by arranging for management and repair work to be carried out. Usually we commission an archaeological consultant to draw up a Management Plan identifying the work needed without causing further damage to the Monument, and supervise contractors to carry out the work once everyone is happy with what has been proposed. With bracken control and other vegetation management work, it’s very important that treatments are repeated in subsequent years in order for it to have a full effect.

Extra feet on the ground…..

The National Park has a group of Historic Environment Volunteers and they’re fully involved in our drive to remove Monuments from the Heritage at Risk register. In the spring our enthusiastic volunteers were trained in what to look out for and now we have Jo Collins who works for the MMS two days a week coordinating their efforts out in the field. The Volunteers have been busy over the summer visiting Monuments to give us an up-to-date record of their condition. This is immensely helpful as we have a huge number of Scheduled Monuments in the National Park (840 – the highest density within the Yorkshire region, and second in number to only one other National Park). Many of these Monuments haven’t been visited for several years and have almost fallen off the radar for regular monitoring, but with the help of the volunteers we can identify any problems developing and then try to address them through the MMS.

136 Scheduled Monuments were on the Heritage at Risk register before I started work on MMS – we’ve removed 38 since then, but we still have a long way to go!

A word about the photographs – some archaeological features are sometimes difficult for non-archaeologists to make out – but if you can get your eye in and learn to recognise different shapes on the ground …..

16 thoughts on “Looking after Scheduled Monuments

    • The EU withdrawal of the licence for the chemical Asulam came into force in 2011, with a use-up period for existing stocks up to December 2012. This ban was largely a response to concerns over its use in Europe on food crops – in the UK Asulam is principally used to control bracken in upland areas. A national stakeholder group, The Bracken Control Group, has been campaigning to have the chemical re-licenced specifically for bracken control in the UK. Earlier this year an Emergency Licence was issued to allow the use of Asulam for bracken control in 2013 and a further Emergency Licence has been granted for 2014. There are hopes that the chemical may be fully re-licenced in due course, but the Bracken Control Group are also involved in trials of alternative chemicals which may be licenced to replace Asulam in a few years’ time.

      Effective control of bracken is difficult without the use of chemicals, but there are a number of (less effective) mechanical methods which involve either crushing or cutting the bracken fronds. These methods are not always appropriate on archaeological sites, because vehicles and machinery can damage remains hidden by the bracken, but for small areas they may be a practical alternative. If we are not able to use chemical control on our important archaeological sites, then we will consider using one of these methods, particularly on monuments where we have already started to clear the bracken, but the work will need to be carefully monitored to ensure that nothing is damaged.

  1. Ah bracken! Good riddance to it. I can’t think of how many photos I have of ranging rods protruding forlornly from thick undergrowth that is masking my exciting yet unphotogenic archaeological site 🙂

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