Iron Age Fort In Leicestershire Defended From Raiding Rabbits

By David Prudames | 17 December 2004
Shows a photograph of the remains of Iron Age fortifications with a number of sheep grazing on grass that has grown over the top. The whole scene is set under a vivid blue sky.

Burrough-on-the-Hill might once have defended the people of Leicestershire, but now it needs defending itself.

During the Iron Age it stood up to marauders, protecting the people of ancient Leicestershire against anyone that might do them harm. But a couple of thousand years later Burrough-on-the-Hill was in need of a little defending of its own.

They might not sound as fearsome as a neighbouring tribe, or even the might of the Roman Empire, but the ancient hill fort has recently been under attack from the local rabbit population.

However, under the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affair’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme, farmer and Country Park Ranger, Tim Maydwell, has been fighting back.

"The rabbits may have been attracted to this site by the abundance of scrubby vegetation around the fort," explained Mr Maydwell, whose family have farmed in the area for generations.

"They’ve made their warrens in the foundations of the old ramparts and now there is a danger of land slippage. I didn't want to eradicate the rabbits, nor did I want to completely clear the scrub as it is a valuable habitat for nesting birds such as the linnet."

The ancient hill fort was made a Scheduled Ancient Monument by English Heritage in 1970, which affords the site legal protection and makes maintenance a requirement by law.

Shows a photo of lots of silver and bronze coins in a range of sizes, embossed with pictures and symbols.

Leicestershire boasts many important Iron Age sites, including what archaeologists believe may be a temple complex at which a massive hoard of coins was recently found. Courtesy The British Museum.

"Burrough-on-the-Hill is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and one of the few remaining examples of this style of iron age hill fort," said Kate Fearn of English Heritage.

"It has superb views over High Leicestershire and has been much visited by the public over the years. Not surprisingly this has also contributed to soil erosion, along with the rabbit damage and the influences of the weather."

The land is managed by Leicestershire County Council, who, alongside Defra's Rural Development Service, English Heritage, the Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust and the Ernest Cook Trust have been working to combat the problem.

Targeted scrub removal has taken place over several years and a number of cows and sheep have been drafted in to graze the site. The cattle control the harder grasses, while the sheep eat the softer stuff on top of the stone and earth ramparts.

Care has been taken to retain healthy gorse and hawthorn bushes and as a result the rabbit population is rapidly decreasing.

shows an aerial shot of moorland

The careful maintenance of certain hardy plants is gradually resulting in the lowering the rabbit population.

Furthermore, hedgerows have been coppiced, gapped up and laid in the traditional style of the area and larger trees and shrubs are being conserved to aid local tree sparrows and owls.

Vegetation has also recovered to such an extent that parts of the site have now been designated as a Wildlife Site by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.

"I'm delighted to say the condition of the ramparts is now greatly improved as a result of the grazing and grassland management," added Kate Fearn. "Thanks to the County Council and the funding partners the site will retain its value as an historic monument, a public amenity and a wildlife haven."

The Countryside Stewardship Scheme currently has more than 16,000 participants and offers payment to farmers and land managers to improve the natural beauty and diversity of the countryside.

Operating throughout England outside Environmentally Sensitive Areas, the scheme is one of 10 programes that make up DEFRA’s England Rural Development Programme.

"This is a real conservation success story," said Bill Field, a senior adviser at Defra's Rural Development Service in the East Midlands. "Five years of carefully monitored mixed grazing and timely scrub control are now paying off."

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