Roof repairs underway on a rural barn.
Re-roofing of a rural barn in Northumberland. © Historic England (DP234638)
Re-roofing of a rural barn in Northumberland. © Historic England (DP234638)

Support for Rural Heritage

Millions of people spend their free time enjoying England’s magnificent countryside. As a nation it fills us with more pride than even the NHS (DCMS Taking Part 2015).

We go there to spend quality time with our families or find some peace from our hectic lives.

We go to improve our physical and mental health, to recharge our batteries.

It’s not just the natural beauty of our countryside that makes it so special but also its heritage. For millennia we have shaped our rural landscapes and the remnants of our shared past.

The dry stones walls, hedgerows, farm buildings and archaeological sites beneath our feet are as an integral part of the countryside as its rivers, mountains and valleys.

How agri-environment schemes support rural heritage

Since their introduction more than three decades ago, agri-environment schemes have helped to repair and conserve our rural heritage sites. Since 2006, agri-environment schemes have contributed around £13 million per year towards the conservation and maintenance of our rural heritage. This has helped to remove 1,200 Scheduled Monuments from our Heritage at Risk Register.

Much of our designated heritage is on agricultural land. This includes most Scheduled Monuments (78%) and Registered Parks and Gardens (67%), as well as all Registered Battlefields. Much of this in in private ownership and agri-environment schemes represent the only source of funding for their conservation and maintenance.    

Read about places saved by agri-environment schemes

Currently four in every ten Scheduled Monuments and nine out of ten Registered Battlefields are looked after through agri-environment funding and a further 45,000 archaeological sites fall within Countryside Stewardship agreements, having been identified as important by local authorities. These agreements ensure the sites are protected by the landowner from the dangers of ploughing, erosion caused by livestock and shrub growth. These keep the sites accessible to the public.

6,500 agreements also include the maintenance of traditional farm buildings, sustaining their heritage and landscape importance, preventing them from falling into disrepair. This is important, given that we’ve lost half of our historic field barns in the past century.

Cumulatively, the heritage sites currently managed under agri-environment schemes cover 330,000 hectares – an area bigger than the whole of Gloucestershire.  

Stewardship as a tool for saving heritage at risk

Stewardship schemes have been the single biggest driver of progress on Heritage at Risk. But an even more significant achievement has been the extent to which agreements – which help to raise awareness and improve understanding – have brought thousands more heritage sites into sustainable management. In doing so they have prevented them from being added to the Register in the first place.

Economic Benefits

The benefits of such agreements are also economic. For example, forecasts for the Historic Building Restoration pilot operating in five National Parks suggest that every £1 of the £8m Defra grant aid is likely to generate up to £2.50 for the local economy.

A 2020 study in the Lake District National Park (also a World Heritage Site) estimated that archaeological sites on agricultural land generated over £1bn for the local economy over a ten-year period; 80-90% through tourism visits, the remainder by local communities. Similarly, a 2018 study of the impacts of agri-environment-funded dry stone walling repairs within the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District estimated that between £5m and £7.8m had been generated for the local economies.

Saving traditional farm buildings

Modern agriculture has made many traditional farm buildings largely redundant and uneconomical to repair. A Countryside Stewardship pilot scheme running within five national parks co-funds the restoration of such buildings for continued agricultural use. This results in an enhancement of the historic, landscape and public enjoyment of the National Parks and provides opportunities for the farm businesses to diversify. The scheme has been very popular, receiving more than 250 applications. Almost half of applicants were new to agri-environment schemes and in total, 126 buildings are now being repaired.

The re-use of such buildings and the embodied energy they contain also provides a carbon-saving over new builds. 

Environmental Land Management

Defra's Future Farming initiative and its flagship new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme provide a huge opportunity to create a more sustainable future that avoids or mitigates the impacts of agriculture upon the environment.

ELM will take the place of existing farm support payments made under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. Instead, farmers will be rewarded for the environmental benefits that they provide and for making their businesses more sustainable.

Transition to the new schemes is expected to take until 2027. It will contain three main elements – the Sustainable Farming Incentive, Local Nature Recovery, and Landscape Recovery. Countryside Stewardship will continue in parallel with the piloting of new schemes as part of the transitional arrangements, but it will end in 2024. Within National Parks and Areas of Natural Beauty the three-year Farming in Protected Landscapes capital scheme will also aid transition. Heritage is figuring prominently within the first round of applications.

Success stories: Saved thanks to agri-environment schemes

Willy Howe Round Barrow, East Yorkshire

Read the list entry: Willy Howe Round Barrow (Scheduled Monument)

A Scheduled Monument dating from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, Willy Howe is a round barrow, a type of prehistoric funerary monument. Many barrows contain human remains but two partial excavations in the 19th century failed to find any.

It has also been suggested that the mound was reused in the early Middle Ages as a Thing mound, an earthen mound used for meetings and public debate.

Over the years Willy Howe became overgrown with brambles and invasive weeds, causing damage to the site and obscuring it from view.

Grants from Natural England's Countryside Stewardship Scheme and latterly, Historic England have enabled the owner of Willy Howe to clear the unwanted vegetation from the site.

Subsequently, Willy Howe was removed from the At Risk Register in 2020 and is now accessible to the public to explore.

Stripple Stones Stone Circle on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Read the list entry: Stripple Stones (Scheduled Monument)

A rare example in Cornwall of a henge, with stone circle inside it; and unusually for Cornwall, the circle has a central stone. It is located on Bodmin Moor, just below Hawkstor and within sight of Cornwall’s highest hills - Brown Willy and Roughtor.

Many years of bad weather contributed to a deterioration in the site’s condition; high rainfall led to stock erosion in the ditches and around the stones threatening the below-ground archaeology and risking the stones’ stability.

The Stripple Stones was removed from the Heritage at Risk Register thanks to funding from a Natural England Higher Level Stewardship Agreement which allowed conservation work and repairs to be carried out. This work included land management such as clearing scrub, reducing the stock that was grazing on the land from cows and sheep to sheep only, as well as making some of the fallen stones upright again.

Langley Abbey, Langley, Norfolk

Read the list entry: Langley Abbey Remains (Grade I Listed Building)

Langley is a former Premonstratensian Friary. The friary was founded in 1195 and today consists of well upstanding ruins of the Abbey Church, cloisters and chapterhouse which date from the 13th to 15th centuries. Part of the site, including the Gatehouse, cellarium and abbots lodgings, are roofed and has been incorporated into the farm buildings known as Langely Abbey Estate.

At the time of purchase the buildings were abandoned but had been used for storage of seed potatoes and grain with the ruins used as a sugar beet clamp. The larger barn was filled with redundant 20th Century processing equipment and brick silos. The site had no public access.

The main problems on the site included overgrown ruins, high level masonry and roof repairs needed to the surviving buildings, exposed fabric and internal structural issues relating to the disused grain silos.

The principal buildings were restored with the assistance of a Natural England grant through the Environmental Stewardship scheme and the work undertaken using local skilled crafts and materials.

As well as ensuring the site is brought back into use as part of a working farm estate, this project has also provided public access to the Abbey site with visitor facilities and interpretation.

Kilpeck Castle Motte and Bailey, Herefordshire

Read the list entries: Kilpeck Castle (Grade II Listed Building) and Kilpeck Castle and ancient village (Scheduled Monument)

Kilpeck Castle in Herefordshire is a medieval motte and partially-surviving stone shell keep and bailey earthworks. The Scheduled Monument and Listed building were deemed to be in worrying condition and thought to be High Risk prior to 2014.

To remedy this, a Higher Level Stewardship Agreement was put in place with Natural England and the owner of the site.

Higher Level Stewardship enables applicants to tackle some of England’s most challenging heritage conservation projects in farmed landscapes. Investment in such projects secured historic monuments, landscapes and buildings in 1,401 of such Agreements between 2006 and 2014.

Following conservation work to its structure and masonry the future of the site was secured and it was subsequently removed from the Heritage at Risk Register in 2014. A popular visitor attraction, the work has also allowed visitors to have a greater understanding of the rich medieval landscape.

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