Farmers could lose the automatic right to plough their fields under proposals being considered to save thousands of archaeological sites from destruction.
English Heritage also wants to reward farmers who protect important archaeological locations such as Neolithic burial mounds, buried Roman towns and Anglo-Saxon cemeteries. At present, 55,000 sites, including 2,800 officially protected ones, are ploughed. Of those 55,000, more than 50 per cent are in medium term or imminent danger of being destroyed.
Since deep ploughing was introduced on a massive scale after the Second World War at least 15,000 archaeological sites have been destroyed, estimates show. Thirty per cent of all damage to archaeological sites in England has been caused by agricultural activity.
Although new regulations and financial incentives will be required, English Heritage and the Government will rely on the farming community's goodwill. The National Farmers' Union pledged yesterday to help protect the sites, but the union criticised the language and tone of English Heritage's campaign and its slogan, "Ripping up History". There is a need "to use language that encourages rather than undermines partnership", John Seymour, the NFU's environment chairman, said.
The launch announcement was headed, "English Heritage launches campaign to encourage farmers to protect, not plough, archaeological sites at risk". The union said English Heritage had not discussed what farmers should be doing to protect archaeological sites. English Heritage informed the NFU of its detailed proposals only four days ago. And the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was informed only on Thursday.
The NFU said farmers were often unaware of the buried archaeological sites on their land. "There needs to be a system by which archaeologists can inform farmers about what is at risk," Andrew Clark, the NFU's chief countryside adviser, said. "Such a system does not exist. Its introduction needs to be an absolute priority."
Defra helps protect only a few archaeological sites on arable land covered by the Government's countryside stewardship scheme and environmentally sensitive area initiatives. Most archaeological sites threatened by plough destruction do not benefit from the existing schemes.
But starting in 2005, these schemes will be replaced by a new agri-environment programme in which much larger numbers of farmers are likely to be involved, and English Heritage hopes archaeological protection will be a much much greater element. It is expected to involve some 6,000 sites, including the 2,800 protected at present.