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Offa's Dyke
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The Offa's Dyke Initiative

The Offa's Dyke Initiative was an English Heritage and Cadw funded scheme, based within the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. It had three broad aims - to raise the profile of Offa's Dyke as a structure of major archaeological and wider importance, to take forward schemes of practical conservation of the earthwork, and to encourage a more strategic and integrated long term approach to the management of the Dyke as a whole monument. In August 1999 Ian Bapty was appointed Offa's Dyke Archaeological Management Officer and remained in post until the summer of 2006, when funding came to an end.

Offa's Dyke - the conservation problem

Animal erosion on Offa's Dyke Right: An animal scrape on Offa's Dyke

The Offa's Dyke Initiative arose from growing concern about the long term future of the Dyke. A number of archaeological condition surveys over the previous decade, including detailed examination of the Dyke in Wales by Cadw, and in the Wye Valley by Gloucestershire County Council area showed that, despite the landscape and historic significance of Offa's Dyke (and its status as a Scheduled Ancient Monument in England and Wales), the 129 kilometres of surviving earthwork were being increasingly threatened by erosion pressures. These pressures ranged from visitor access (linked to the National Trail which follows much of the line of the Dyke), by agricultural activities, by building and road development, and by damage by burrowing animals. The conservation problem is exacerbated by the sheer geographical scale of the monument as it runs through two countries and across a wide range of different modern environmental contexts.

Management approaches

The process of conserving the Dyke also raised other environmental issues. Offa's Dyke is not just an archaeological monument of national importance. It is also an integral part of the wider Marches landscape which has evolved around it for more than 1000 years. It has significant value as a wildlife corridor, as a local landmark, as a hedgeline, as an area of woodland, or as a lane or footpath. Management of the Dyke today must try to balance these sometimes conflicting priorities - should a hedgerow which is itself a part of the historic landscape and a wildlife habitat be removed because farm animals sheltering against it are causing damage to the earthwork? What degree of change do we consider acceptable today in a historic monument like the Dyke whose very appearance is the consequence of such ongoing change over the centuries? The management answers are not always easy and require an integrated and considered conservation approach.

A Conservation Plan for the monument has been developed which should help, in the long term, to inform these management decisions. This involved consultation across a range of partners towards the realisation of an integrated statement of the broad significance of Offa's Dyke, and the development of an agreed management programme linked to that inclusive understanding.

Offa's Dyke Initiative - practical work in progress

Plough damaged on Offa's Dyke left: Plough damage on a section of Offa's Dyke

An important aspect of the project was to help local farmers maintain the Dyke in a sympathetic way. This involved working with them to arrange English Heritage or Cadw funding connected to a Management Agreement to help with the costs of looking after the Dyke. Sometimes, by linking with an agri-environment scheme, quite major Dyke repair projects could be developed or, more simply, advice provided where issues such as uncertainty over Scheduled Monument Consent procedures arose. Some of the projects developed with farmers included scrub clearance and control on the Dyke, installation of fencing to protect pressured areas of the monument, and infilling of erosion scars. Ian Bapty, Offa's Dyke Archaeological Management Officer for the lifetime of the project, said of this part of his job: 'basically, with the agreement of the landowner, I'm here to do all the organising and fundraising to make this kind of work happen'.

Between 1999 and 2006 conservation management/repair planning work of this kind, and associated landowner-liaison progressed well on a range of sites along the Dyke in Wales and England, and on Scheduled Ancient Monuments on the Offa's Dyke Path. In some cases projects stemmed from pre-existing management work on the Dyke and path; amongst them a scheme at the Dyke's south end to manage walker pressure on heavily visited sections of Offa's Dyke in the Wye Valley, and in the north repair of damage caused by the Offa's Dyke Path to the Iron Age hillforts on the Clwydian Hills.

Path erosion on the Dyke Right: Path erosion on Offa's Dyke

Additional aspects of the project included offering archaeological management advice to the Offa's Dyke Path Service and other land managers on the earthwork, and organising regular condition monitoring of the Dyke as a basis for an ongoing 'stitch in time' management and erosion control programme. It was also hoped to set in train wider conservation initiatives such as research to develop (with a range of relevant agencies) an approach to the difficult issue of badger damage to Offa's Dyke.

Overall project data has been digitised on a Geographical Information System (incorporating a reference archive of survey and archaeological data relating to the monument), which should provide a resource available to all agencies involved in Offa's Dyke management work.

A heritage management case study?

The management of Offa's Dyke through the Offa's Dyke Initiative - in both its immediate practical and wider strategic components - is potentially a case study relevant to the conservation of many other historic landscapes. As Ian Bapty observed 'The engagement with an archaeological resource understood to be of wide value, linked to a pragmatic approach to conserving ancient monuments in modern environments, is central to the management approach under development via the Offa's Dyke Initiative. This will hopefully provide interesting general insights for the effective conservation management of historic earthworks, and more specifically help to secure the long term future of one of Britain's most important and dramatic archaeological sites.'

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