As Stonehenge celebrates 30 years as a World Heritage Site, National Trust rangers and volunteers in Wiltshire are working closely with farmers to restore the chalk grassland landscape that would have been familiar to the monument’s original builders.
The conservation charity owns and cares for more than 850 hectares (2,100 acres) of the World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, a place rich in natural and human history with hundreds of globally important archaeological sites.
The project to restore chalk grassland at Stonehenge began in 2000 and has seen more than 250 hectares of poorer-quality arable farmland have been restored to chalk grassland. Much of the new grassland is grazed as part of agri-environment schemes by livestock belonging to local farmers.
The grassland reversion has seen wildlife species return to the landscape. These include the first sighting around Stonehenge for decades of an Adonis Blue butterfly in 2008 and the establishment in the chalk grassland of Sainfoin, a pink-flowered herb.
By the end of the year, 216kg of wildflower and grass seed harvested from nearby Salisbury Plain will have been sown on grassland surrounding Stonehenge. In some areas a team of half a dozen National Trust volunteers will plant the seeds by hand. Four tonnes of seed has been sown since the project started 16 years ago.
Keith Steggall, National Trust Area Ranger for the Stonehenge Landscape, said: “The locally sourced seeds will help to restore the chalk grassland landscape our ancestors would have known at the time of Stonehenge. In recent years the land was farmed to grow crops, with the soil drying out and the top soil was being blown away in the winds.
“But by harvesting and sowing the seeds and working with our tenant farmers to manage the land through grazing, we are succeeding in both protecting the historic monuments and bringing back the grassland landscape.”
Rob Turner of Manor Farm has worked with the National Trust since 2003 to revert land around Stonehenge from arable fields to grassland, which is grazed by 500 Hereford-cross cattle.
A third-generation Wiltshire farmer, Mr Turner said: “It was clear that the land around Stonehenge needed something a bit different. Since the project started it’s been a steep learning curve. In farming nothing is an overnight success, but what we’ve achieved for the farm and for nature has been good. It’s a bleak spot, but you now see quite a variety of flowers and birds.”
Sonia Heywood, one of the National Trust volunteers taking part in the seed sowing, said: “I’ve been volunteering with the Trust for 11 years and thanks to the grassland project I’ve seen more and more grassland plants and wildlife returning every year. I love being a volunteer in the Stonehenge Landscape because it’s such an interesting and dramatic place.
“It’s such a pleasure to see the first Hare of the year and I’ll never forget the first time I saw an Adonis Blue butterfly; it was such a bright blue! We’re very lucky and I plan to keep volunteering until I physically can’t do it anymore.”
Area Ranger Keith Steggall continued: “The chalk grassland landscape took thousands of years to develop and so it will take decades for it to return to how it once looked. We will continue to graze the land and bring in more seeds.
“We’ve managed to attract many species of insects, birds and mammals including key species such as the Marbled White Butterfly, Brown Hare and birds such as the Skylark and Meadow Pipit and things are only going to improve over time.”