Wessex hillforts and habitats: where archaeology meets nature

Published: 20 July 2021

Last update: 20 July 2021

Blog post
This blog post is written by Marie McLeish, Project Manager Marie McLeish Project Manager
Frosty morning on Eggardon Hill

The National Trust cares for nearly 300 hillforts across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In south west England, a special partnership with Historic England is helping everyone connect with the archaeology, beauty and nature of 13 of our extraordinary Wessex hillforts. In this blog, Project Manager Marie McLeish tells us more about how this partnership is enabling both organisations to deliver our shared goals in helping to improve people’s lives by championing history and nature.

High on the hills

My favourite features of the Wessex landscape are the Iron Age hillforts, found across many of the high points of the region including Dorset and Wiltshire. Hillforts, with their nature, beauty and history, offer the visitor rich, extraordinary experiences.

At places like Hod Hill and Hambledon Hill you can walk along streets of Iron Age round houses, visible as clear earthworks within the grazed grassland. It’s like being able to step back in time and reimagine how our ancestors once lived thousands of years ago. These hillforts are not natural features - their dramatic ramparts were made by people by hacking into the chalk with antler picks and using shovels made from shoulder blades. They are astonishing feats of teamwork.

Reconstruction of Hod Hill
Reconstruction of Hod Hill
Reconstruction of Hod Hill
" The inner rampart at Hambledon Hill was a formidable structure, and this alone needed 10,000 oak beams the size of telephone poles. This implies there was a considerable timber resource nearby and it would have been the first large-scale clearance of woodland which led to the development of the grassland."
- Roger Mercer
Summer at Hambledon Hill
Summer at Hambledon Hill
Summer at Hambledon Hill

Key project aims

The Hillforts and Habitats project includes 13 hillforts across the Dorset and Wiltshire landscape, many of them scheduled monuments of national significance. Four of the hillforts are listed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register. We are delivering a step change in how we balance care for heritage and nature with adequate resources and restoring them to good condition for archaeology, buried remains, and nature. Hillfort ramparts and ditches will be cleared of damaging scrub. Features such as Iron Age hut circles, and earlier features of Neolithic causewayed enclosures, long barrows, and Bronze Age burial mounds will be visible on plateaus due to effective conservation grazing regimes.

Corn bunting

A corn bunting singing

Devil's bit scabious at Hod Hill

Devil's bit scabious at Hod Hill

Adonis blue butterflies at Hambledon Hill

Adonis blue at Hambledon Hill

An amazing 332ha of priority habitats, including chalk grassland and acid heaths are improving, making our sites better for nature at a landscape scale. Populations of butterflies like the Adonis Blue and Chalkhill Blue can now thrive. Conditions for wildflowers like pyramidal orchid, cowslip, devils bit scabious, birds like the corn bunting, skylark and kestrel and mammals like the brown hare are also on the up.

The project also includes refreshed interpretation, such as the new digital guide to Dorset’s Iron Age hillforts which is available as a free download. This guide introduces you to these significant and substantial landmarks which were built more than 2,000 years ago - it is easy to understand why our ancestors chose these places in which to live and to defend themselves.

Bluebells at Coney's Castle
Bluebells at Coney's Castle
Bluebells at Coney's Castle

Volunteers: our army of ‘Hillfort Heroes’

Central to the success of the project have been our dedicated rangers and volunteer ‘Hillfort Heroes’ who have been trained to carry out condition surveys of archaeology and priority habitats. Work identified in their reports is carried through into the management plan annual works programme for the hillforts. It's this commitment and the hard work of the volunteers, rangers and countryside managers that enables us to deliver our strategy, looking after special places for everyone, for ever. They are the force helping bring the changes on the ground, and this is one of those projects that is pure joy to be part of – it never feels like work!

Repairing erosion scars at Hambledon Hill

Volunteers at work

Repairing erosion scars at Hambledon Hill

HART Training at Pilsdon Pen

HART Training

Volunteer training for condition monitoring at Pilsdon Pen

Hillforts are my go-to places for contemplation, inspiration and often perspiration too as they can be a steep climb. Where else can you soar with a red kite, catch a glimpse of a butterfly, delight in a wildflower or command a panoramic view over the countryside? Every day is a good hillfort visiting day.

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