Greater Stonehenge: wilding a cultural landscape

I’ve written before about the opportunity to reintroduce wilder large grazing herbivores to the 28,000ha of MoD (public)-owned Salisbury Plain Training Area. This huge, largely unfenced chalk grassland area maintains its amazing biodiversity value thanks to military training, which creates just the rather odd mix of tranquility and disturbance that enables its unique biodiversity to thrive. The site could support herds of wilded horse and cattle with presumably relatively little conflict with its current primary purpose – large-scale, mechanised military training.

At the south-east edge of the training area, south of Larkhill, sits one of the world’s most recognisable cultural icons – Stonehenge.

The stone circle of Stonehenge sits within a larger World Heritage Site (WHS) covering several thousands of hectares of arable, arable reversion to grassland and small plantations. The dissection of the WHS by the hideous A303 is an international disgrace. Plans have long been afoot to stick the A303 in a tunnel through part of the WHS, closest to Stonehenge. But the whole WHS is full if archaeological remains, some well known, many just below the surface and as yet undiscovered. Whatever one does to the A303 will damage cultural heritage of global significance. But the plan to submerge at least a part of the A303 would at least offer an opportunity to establish a chalk grassland linkage across this severed landscape.

This scheme could unleash a much broader opportunity: a grand programme of landscape restoration across parts of the WHS and the much larger area south of Salisbury Plain Training Area, as far as the beautiful Wylye Valley.

This is a productive arable landscape. But it was once sheep downland and, before that, a wilder landscape where aurochs and wild horse formed herds across vistas probably not unlike the New Forest, a mix of open grazed glades, beautiful shrublands and woodland.

Can we bring some of this landscape back? Well, absolutely. Selected arable land, particularly close to Stonehenge and around other vulnerable archaeological remains, could be reverted to species-rich chalk grassland and shrubby habitat (away from archaeological features vulnerable to root damage). Light grazing and browsing by longhorn cattle, Exmoor or New Forest ponies and perhaps European bison would create something of the megafauna landscape more familiar to those who created the cultural features that typify this region.

Stonehenge is already a hugely significant tourism attraction: imagine the additional draw of herds of grazing megafauna, with carefully managed access across a broader grassland landscape.

Across the remaining arable between SPTA and the Wylye and Avon valleys, patches of fallow and lucern fields could be just what the Salisbury Plain great bustard population needs to assure long-term persistence. Such cover crops and fallows might also favour reintroduced hen harriers, the reasonably large arable nesting lapwing and corn bunting populations and, or course, visiting stone curlews.

How might such a plan be delivered? Well, the emerging ELMS scheme might just fit the bill, especially if it includes a wilding option and incentivises wilder grazing and shrubland formation. This whole area sits in the headwaters of rivers that flow to the Solent, and carry nutrients with them. Nitrate Neutrality could provide a delivery mechanism to fund arable reversion to grazed grassy shrubland. And a land trust could join forces with the RSPB and National Trust to expand conservation land ownership. If a scheme to deal with the A303 does get off the ground, that could add impetus and help deliver larger-scale chalk grassland creation in the immediate vicinity of Stonehenge.

Combined with the huge chalk grassland plains at the Salisbury Plain Training Area, a grand Greater Stonehenge Landscape project could be one of the most exciting, publicly-accessible Natural Area projects in southern England.

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