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Cairn An example of a cairn ©YDNPA

Leave No Trace – Help us Protect the Historic Environment

Sunday 27 June, 2021, by Lily Mulvey

As summer approaches and places open up, we’re excited to be welcoming back visitors to the National Park. However, we’d like to take this opportunity to issue a friendly reminder that when you come, you should leave no trace.

We all know that our beautiful countryside and National Parks should be respected. The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority has issued guidance about how to do this – respect the land, respect the life and work of people who live and work here, respect the community, respect each other, and leave no trace.

Take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

You may not have realised it, but leave no trace refers not only to taking all your litter home, but making sure you don’t disturb the landscape and its features.

Last year, we published a blog discussing the sensitive archaeological area at the summit of Ingleborough. This took a look at the prehistoric ring cairns within a scheduled monument and asked visitors to avoid disturbing the rocks. We would now like to extend this message to the rest of the park – and the wider national countryside.

Photo shows a view of the summit of Ingleborough. Stones are arranged in a wide ring or circle, but have been badly eroded.
An example of a ring cairn on Ingleborough. . Ring cairns are circular banks of earth and stone occasionally (but by no means always) housing a burial inside ©YDNPA

What are cairns?

Cairns come in various forms – round cairns, ring cairns, long cairns, chambered cairns…the list goes on. At a basic level, they are man-made piles or arrangements of stones. They are features of upland landscapes, typically on or near the summit of hills or slopes. It’s quite likely that you – at one point or another – will come across a cairn or two while on a walk. While some are modern constructions (typically the more stacked, lenticular/upright ones, although some modern cairns are also built on top of prehistoric ones), they have actually been built since prehistory as landmarks, for burials, or for ceremonial purposes. They sometimes contained not one but multiple burials, or were grouped together in much the same way as a churchyard is. Prehistoric cairns like these were incredibly important structures (both physically and spiritually) to the people who built them, and as such are a significant part of our shared cultural heritage.

Image shows what appears to be a neatly piled selection of large stones
An example of a prehistoric cairn on Little Fell. A more recent walkers cairn has been built on top of it, possibly out of spoil perhaps from an antiquarian investigation ©YDNPA
Image shows a pile of stones (the cairn). A ranging pole (half red, half white pole) lies in front of it
An example from Long Scar of a modern walkers cairn. with another visible in the background ©YDNPA
Image shows a long cair - that is, a long stretch of piled stones - silhouetted against the sky
A prehistoric long cairn on Dudderhouse Hill – possibly one of the earliest field monuments in the park ©YDNPA

What threats do they face?

Due to their unassuming appearance, cairns are under threat. Many people are unaware of what they are and as such do not understand how truly significant they are. As such, they view these ‘piles of rocks’ as a sign of encouragement for them to build their own structures, stealing the rocks from them to create their own or piling their own rocks on the top or sides to ‘add’ or contribute to them. Sometimes people like to leave their mark by carving names or messages into them, or even see them as a convenient place to leave rubbish! When they do this, these people are unaware that they are contributing to the destruction of monuments that are often thousands of years old. As explained in our Ingleborough blog, on a much smaller scale, it is like picking up and rearranging the standing stones of Stonehenge – something totally unthinkable to most of us. It should also be emphasised that some archaeological sites in the park are “designated” (e.g. as a scheduled monument) and protected by law – so damaging them is a criminal offence.

Image shows a bean can half buried in the cairn
A close up of some rubbish (a baked bean can) left possibly in a modern cairn, built on top of a prehistoric one. NB this is the same cairn pictured above on Little Fell. ©YDNPA
Image shows some writing and sketches scratched into one of the stones
Some graffiti on the base of a cairn ©YDNPA
Images shows the stones that once made up the top of a cairn laid out in a rectangular pattern
Some recent vandalism at Long Scar. The top of a cairn was removed and the stones laid out in a rectangular formation. © Philip Farrer.

More examples from Little Fell. These had been destroyed and were restored by our Historic Environment, Rangers and Walling Teams

Image shown some partially destroyed cairns side by side
Damaged marker cairns on Little Fell. It was unclear if this was entirely deliberate vandalism or partly a result of the very strong winds that occur here. ©YDNPA
Image shows three people in the process of rebuilding one of the cairns
Rebuilding the cairns – thanks to our historic environment, walling and rangers teams. This was a planned piece of conservation work supervised by the Historic Environment team. ©YDNPA
Image shows three restored cairns side by side. A man stands in the background
The finished work! This line of lenticular cairns marks a parish boundary and may have had a wider historic landscape significance and purpose as a boundary marker. It is not known when they were first built. But such cairns belong to the historic period and are quite unlike prehistoric cairns. ©YDNPA

How can we protect them?

Simply put, if you come across a cairn in the landscape, don’t disturb it. This means both removing stones from it or adding your own, or even ‘re-arranging it’. Our heritage is a shared resource, but it is finite and relies on all of us to look after it so that future generations can enjoy it too.


  • Leave no trace!
  • Don’t remove stones
  • Don’t add stones
  • Don’t rearrange stones
  • Don’t carve messages

If you want to hear more from us, follow our social media pages:

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Picture of Lily Mulvey

Lily Mulvey

Lily is the Authority's Historic Environment Apprentice

One Reply to “Leave No Trace – Help us Protect the Historic Environment”

  1. Bob younger says:

    Hi, yes it is a good idea explaining how to treat our landscape, but it does not go far enough,
    The cairns for instance are there to help people to navigate the hills & mountings , it’s a pity they weren’t so they couldn’t be dismantled & weren’t more prominent on the Ordnance survey mapping system, might help people not get lost as easy, especially on the lower fells.

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