Part of the way to Stonehenge to be restored to how ancient pilgrims saw it

Part of a ceremonial approach to the great circle of Stonehenge and a spot nearby where ancient hunter-gatherers shared feasts with the first British farmers have been saved from the threat of modern agriculture.

The areas are to be restored as chalk grassland, which will benefit flora and fauna, including wild flowers, butterflies and hares, with the aim that they will eventually be opened to the public.

One of the areas includes a stretch of the Avenue, a route that runs 1.5 miles from the banks of the River Avon to the main Stonehenge circle.

If and when the new section is opened after restoration work, it will give modern visitors a better feel of what the approach to the circle must have been like for pilgrims thousands of years ago.

The second acquisition is land that includes a Neolithic feasting pit at Coneybury, almost a mile south-east of the circle and close to another henge, built about 2,700BC, a little before Stonehenge. Bones of cattle raised by the early farmers and deer caught by hunter-gatherers were found in the pit, suggesting it was a place where the two groups gathered and shared food.

The acquisition of the two sites by the National Trust, a total of about 170 hectares (420 acres), means that six monuments, including the stretch of the Avenue, the Coneybury pit and henge, have been removed from Historic England’s at-risk register.

The conservation charity already looks after the final stretch of the Avenue just before it reaches the circle, but the acquisition means it will care for the whole of the route north of the A303.

Nick Snashall, the trust’s archaeologist for the Stonehenge and Avebury world heritage site, said the areas would be returned to chalk grassland and, in the future, there could be further digs there and, hopefully, public access.

She said both sites had in recent years been used for arable farming, with wheat the main crop, and had been damaged by ploughing.

“Arable farming can be hugely damaging to archaeology, year after year erasing more and more of the story of the people who built and used the monuments in this landscape,” she said. “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. 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.”

More than 80% of the UK’s chalk grassland has been lost since the second world war, with about half of the remaining grassland in Wiltshire.

The National Trust cares for more than 800 hectares of the landscape surrounding the Stonehenge monument and, over the past 20 years, has carried out one of the largest grassland reversion programmes in Europe. It is now home to brown hares, skylarks and Adonis blue butterflies, as well as wildflowers such as sainfoin, cowslip and prickly poppy.

Rebecca Burton, the regional director at the National Trust, said: “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. It will mean people will be able to experience a landscape that would have been more familiar to the builders of Stonehenge.”

Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said: “Some of these sites close to Stonehenge were vulnerable to continued arable cultivation, including part of the Avenue. We are delighted that the National Trust has been able to secure the conservation ownership and control of this land, leading to the removal of six key monuments from our heritage at-risk register and the protection of other important archaeological remains.

“This will also help facilitate wider access to the landscape, a further step towards one day in the future the exciting prospect for people to once again walk the ceremonial route along the Avenue.”

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