Biodioversity and the ‘sacred sites’ of West Penwith

Emma Shepheard-Walwyn and Shonil A.Bhagwat, ‘Maintaining standing stones benefits biodiversity in lowland heathland’, Oryx 52(2) (2018), 240-249.

With scientific reports regularly documenting the remorseless effect of human activity, one has to be particularly ill-informed not to be aware of the growing biodiversity crisis. But can some of our actions have a beneficial effect too? That is precisely what this article concludes. While agreeing that ‘in general human activity and exploitation of natural resources has detrimental effects ‘, it claims to find an exception in and around the standing stones and ancient burial sites of West Penwith.

The article’s authors begin by stating that their aim is to better understand the cultural aspects of land use and use the insights gained as part of a more effective conservation strategy. They note that there’s been research on some cultural landscapes (which includes farmland, moorland, managed forests, urban green spaces – in short almost all landscapes) but none on what they term ‘sacred sites’ on lowland heathland – land less than 300 metres above sea level.

They set out to remedy this by assessing the extent of semi-natural sacred sites in Cornwall and the difference between the flora and fauna near these sites and at a distance in the surrounding heathland. To do this they chose 16 Neolithic and Bronze Age standing stones and burial sites in West Penwith, coupling each of them with a randomly chosen ‘non-sacred’ site at least 50 metres away from the monument. Species and cover were recorded by using a line transept method and quadrats (frames to study a standard unit of area).

The results were clear. There was a greater number of species, more diversity of species, and a greater variety of vegetation height in the areas near the sacred site. In contrast, the non-sacred sites were dominated by a monoculture of gorse or heather. They conclude that anthropogenic influence promotes habitat and species diversity in this instance through trampling, cutting back heathland, planting grass, dispersing species through movement and introducing grazing animals.

Lanyon Quoit – one of the 16 sites assessed

The authors admit that their research was limited in terms of place and time. West Penwith is a unique landscape and the monuments chosen were well away from the coastal footpath and in the main not exactly simple to access. It may be the case that similar monuments in other parts of Cornwall where people are more often present (Carn Brea comes to mind) may be different. Logically therefore, similar research needs to take place in other parts and over a length of time in order to grasp the full effect of an ever-growing population on biodiversity at similar sites.

In addition, the researchers also recorded some tensions they observed between conservationist bodies and those desiring to maintain the heritage of the sites. They also report claims of declining biodiversity and fewer bird sightings closely following changes to access, cessation of manual cutting back of the heather and the introduction of cattle.

They conclude that ‘the existence, use and maintenance of sacred sites in the landscape gives rise to habitat features that were important for a range of species and may not be present in other areas of the heathland’. However, conservationists were missing an opportunity by not acting in a more ‘culturally sensitive manner’. The authors suggest they need to acknowledge alternative values and work with those who value the landscape for cultural and spiritual reasons as much as environmental ones. By doing this, conservationist bodies might better promote new ways of increasing the existing raised biodiversity around ancient monuments and engender additional support for more general conservation management.