On the intricacies of change

During the autumn, repair works were carried out to the banks of the River Tas at Caistor Roman Town. For me, this small project illustrates well the complexity of managing change at our archaeological sites.

Those of you who visit the site regularly will have noticed that last winter’s flooding caused erosion either side of the pedestrian bridge. In some areas this erosion has been exacerbated by enthusiastic dogs jumping into the river here, and then scrambling up the soft soil of the banks. It’s amazing to see the myriad of paw prints in the mud around these areas, and it raises the classic management issue of balancing public access with conservation. Currently, we have cordoned off the repaired areas with temporary fencing, which doesn’t look very nice, but is necessary to allow the grass to re-establish.

The profile of the banks either side of the bridge has been reinstated using fascines (long bundles of sticks bound together) which have been backfilled using soil gathered from the river bed.

A number of permissions were required prior to this work starting. Because the site is a scheduled monument, consent was required from Historic England. The local authority categorised the works as an engineering operation, and so planning permission was necessary. The site is managed under a Higher-level Stewardship Scheme, and so the works were checked with Natural England. Because the site is archaeologically significant, a watching brief was carried out during the works by local freelance archaeologist Heather Wallis.

Despite the swimming dogs, and use of the bridge all day every day by visitors, the west bank immediately south of the bridge is the home of water voles. The water vole is Britain's fastest declining wild mammal and has disappeared from many parts of the country where it was once common, so we are fortunate to find them in such numbers at our site. However, their presence has complicated how we have approached works to the bank.

Water voles are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 under which it is an offence to intentionally damage, destroy or obstruct access to any structure or place which water voles use for shelter or protection. Working closely with the Environment Agency – from whom we also needed a Flood Defence Permit- we have carried out mitigation measures by reducing back-fill behind the fascines so that existing burrows in the west bank have been left open. Inevitably this will compromise the strength of the fascine structure here, and this will need to be monitored over the coming months. This process illustrates another frequently arising management issue – the balance of heritage conservation with nature conservation. Often they are mutually supportive, but sometimes detailed negotiation is required.

My intention in writing about this project is not to complain about the processes that need to be gone through to manage change at ours sites – they are precious and we need to make sure we’re doing the right thing – but to highlight the intricate relationships that exist between conservation aims and public benefits.

One last thing - funding was required to pay for these unexpected works. The Trust has been fortunate in receiving grants from South Norfolk Council, Norfolk County Council, The Worshipful Company of Dyers and a generous private donation – thank you!

New in brief

  • Saturday 3 December 2.30 NAHRG & NNAS joint meeting. 'Francis Blomefield and the Parish Churches of Medieval Norwich' Clare Haynes (Senior Research Associate, UEA) and Sandy Heslop (Professor of Visual Arts, UEA). Norwich Castle Museum.  More info at http://www.nahrg.org.uk/lecture.php
  • Saturday 14 January 2017 'A Town of the Iceni? 10 years of research at Venta Icenorum'. One-day conference at the Thomas Paine Study Centre, University of East Anglia on the results of the programme of survey and excavation at Caistor Roman Town since 2006. Sponsored by the British Academy, organized by the University of Nottingham and Caistor Roman Project.  FREE for NAT and CRP members. Download information sheet and booking form here. A full programme and booking details are available at www.caistorromanproject.org