ANCIENT burial mounds and monuments dating back to the Bronze Age in Yorkshire’s national parks are at risk of being lost forever amid a surge in popularity in walking and mountain biking.
A growth in outdoor pursuits such as mountain biking throughout the past decade, coupled with an increasing number of hikers heading out into Britain’s most picturesque landscapes, is placing relics dating back 4,000 years in grave danger.
National park chiefs have warned that a worrying ignorance has seen the centuries-old monuments disturbed by ramblers, and there have been instances of mountain bikers using ancient burial mounds as impromptu jumps.
There are 839 scheduled monuments within the confines of the North York Moors National Park – nearly a third of those found in the entire Yorkshire and Humber region.
The monuments can range from the grandeur of Rievaulx Abbey to standing stones and burial mounds, and around a fifth of those within the national park have been given a high “at risk” rating.
The North York Moors National Park Authority’s senior archaeological conservation officer, Graham Lee, said anyone caught damaging scheduled monuments could, in theory, face a criminal prosecution.
One of the biggest problems is people taking stones from the ancient sites to build up piles, or cairns, nearby. There have also been cases where burial mounds near bridleways have been ridden over by mountain bikers unaware of the historical importance of the raised ground on their revised route.
Mr Lee said: “We have been attempting for many years to highlight the importance of the scheduled monuments in the national park, but people are simply not aware of what they are disturbing.
“They are unwittingly responsible for an awful lot of damage, and the issue is proving to be an extremely hard nut to crack.
“We are getting more and more people into the national park who are taking up walking and mountain biking, which is obviously great news and exactly what we want to encourage. But there is an ignorance about the countryside with many of these people.
“We can patch the scheduled monuments up to a certain extent, but the archaeology itself is irreplaceable.
“If the monuments are badly damaged, we have lost something that has stood there for thousands of years and will never be coming back.”
The North York Moors National Park Authority has joined forces with English Heritage to protect the scheduled ancient monuments in the area. A management scheme to carry out vital restoration work to dozens of the monuments which began in 2009 has now been extended until 2015 after another £100,000 in funding has been secured.
It is hoped the money will help finance work to restore more than 50 scheduled monuments in the national park.
Damage can be caused in a host of other ways such as from the growth of bracken and scrub as well as erosion – both from people and the weather – and the poor management of the monument and its surroundings.
Leading walking and mountain bike organisations have stressed that every effort is being made to ensure their members are fully aware of the need to preserve the countryside and its ancient heritage. Mark McClure, the chairman of the UK branch of the International Mountain Biking Association, which has 1.5 million members across the world, said: “There has been a big surge in popularity in mountain biking in recent years, but there will sadly be instances where people do not realise the importance of the countryside and the routes they are riding.
“We would always urge mountain bikers to stick to the designated tracks to avoid causing any damage, especially to scheduled monuments.”
The Ramblers has more than 115,000 members in England, Scotland and Wales, and the economic downturn has been attributed to a growing number of walkers heading out into the countryside as more hard-up holidaymakers opt to take vacations in Britain.
A spokeswoman for The Ramblers urged all walkers, especially those who are novices, to familiarise themselves with the Countryside Code to ensure they are not responsible for causing any damage to protected areas.
She added: “The Ramblers, as well as encouraging more people to walk, is also about protecting the environment we walk in.”