for National Geographic News
Burrowing badgers and rabbits are digging away at hundreds of England's ancient monuments, the country's heritage guardian says.
The extent of the damage was revealed this week by English Heritage, a government preservation body that conducted a survey of 70,000 protected sites, including castles, battlefields, and shipwrecks.
The badgers and rabbits pose a danger to some 280 archaeological sites in southwest England alone, including those around the ancient Stonehenge monument (see photos), the report said.
The report, called Heritage at Risk, found that, overall, one in 12 of England's protected heritage sites is at high risk from a range of threats, including burrowing, scrub and tree growth, vandalism, and neglect.
Perfect Places to Dig?
"Sites like Iron Age hill forts, Bronze Age burial mounds, and Neolithic long barrows [late Stone Age earthen tombs] are highly at risk from burrowing animals," said Amanda Chadburn, an English Heritage ancient monuments inspector.
Such locations are ideal for European badgers and rabbits—animals that like to burrow into banks and tunnel horizontally, rather than straight down. Earthworks are easier to dig through than natural subsoil or bedrock.
"A lovely manmade mound is just perfect for these animals, so they're actually attracted to ancient monuments," Chadburn said.
Southwest England is the worst affected region because it has vast numbers of rabbits and some 40 percent of the country's badger population, she added.
Records from Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge stands, show a dramatic increase in the number of ancient monuments with badger burrows inside them, the archaeologist said.
The trend coincides with a boom in badger numbers after the mammal was given protected status in the early 1990s, Chadburn said.
"We believe climate change may also be a factor, because warmer winters may be allowing more badger cubs to survive," she said.
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