Walkers' rock piles damaging ancient features of the North York Moors

Precious prehistoric monuments erected in the North York Moors thousands of years ago are being damaged, in some cases severely, by walkers building their own stone landmarks on top of them.

Modern walkers' cairns are a threat to the archaeology of protected sites, National Park officials have warned.
Modern walkers' cairns are a threat to the archaeology of protected sites, National Park officials have warned.

Nearly a third of all protected sites and scheduled monuments in Yorkshire are found in the Moors National Park, which was recently crowned the UK’s most popular park in an online poll, yet some of those landmarks have suffered “extreme” damage, that risk the loss of buried fragments of human bones.

The threat to the park’s nationally significant archaeology comes from a popular modern practice of visitors building cairns - arrangements of stones piled on top of each other.

Many of the burial monuments and barrows found on the Moors date back to the Bronze Age between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago and Mags Waughman, monument management scheme officer at the North York Moors National Park Authority, said the heritage of the area was being put at risk.

She said: “Barrows are often situated on high ground with fine viewpoints and, these days, may also be on well-used footpaths, particularly long-distance routes. And it’s here that the modern practice of building walkers’ cairns can cause damage to the archaeology and put it at risk.

“Moving stones on a burial mound may disturb post holes or the remains of other structures, and could cause fragments of bone - that can tell us a lot about the person buried there - to get lost.”

Ms Waughman warned: “Passing walkers may be tempted to start building a modern cairn on the same spot as an ancient monument, which could grow to bury or obscure the monument altogether, or lead to erosion by attracting more walkers to climb on it.”

The threat to ancient monuments is a long-running one, with a surge in popularity of walking and mountain biking over the last decade proving a major factor.

A recent survey found that damage caused to monuments varied from very slight to extreme, and eight were so badly damagaed that urgent remedial work was needed.

Action so far has largely focussed on the removal of modern walkers’ cairns from monuments in the Raisdale Moor and Live Moor areas of the park.

In total, the park has 842 protected sites or scheduled monuments. Burial mounds account for about 65 per cent of them.

A spokesman for Historic England said: “We support the work of the North York Moors National Park Authority in taking steps to look after the historic environment.”