Cave conservation has to take account of two fundamentally different aspects of caves - caves as dynamic, evolving landforms in which natural processes can be studied and caves as storehouses of more static features, such as speleothems and sediments, which provide valuable evidence on climatic change and landscape development throughout the Quaternary.

Caves face two principle types of threat: 'internal' threats, resulting from their use and 'external' threats, posed by land use activities within their catchments. The nature of these threats is examined and a method of reconciling conservation with these pressures proposed - Cave Conservation Plans.


Processes of cave development can be studied in many of Britain's caves ranging from active erosion in a streamway to the slow precipitation of speleothems. Caves also provide a vital repository of information about their development and how this relates to wider landscape evolution and climatic change. The record of information contained in caves is often far better preserved than that provided by superficial deposits which have been subject to repeated glacial episodes.

Caves are also an integral part of our natural environment. In many cases they have unique and fragile features. Caves should therefore not only be conserved as natural features in their own right, for this and future generations, but, the legacy of stored information should be conserved for future study. The rationale for cave conservation is expanded in a number of publications: NCA's Protect our Caves [1] and Caving Practice and Equipment [2]. Cave conservation is set in the wider context by Earth Science Conservation in Great Britain - A Strategy [3]. Unfortunately for caves, being out-of-sight means largely they are out-of-mind. Apart from statutory conservation agencies, they receive little attention except by cavers and researchers. The SSSI system has provided some protection to cave systems, particularly from 'planning' development. Protection against surface land management activities, such as forestry, has been hindered due to a lack of understanding of the effects and documentary evidence. Many activities also occur within the wider catchment outside SSSI boundaries. However, the threat posed by caving itself is perhaps the most serious. To date, conservation has had a low profile within the caving world. This may be due to the fact that most cavers go caving for sporting reasons and are unaware/unconcerned of their impact. There is the perception that 'conservation' would result in loss of access and the curtailment of exploration. For cave conservation to be successful a workable system needs to be set in place which takes account of all the factors affecting the conservation of the cave and which commands the support and involvement of owners, cavers and conservation agencies [4],[5].



External threats can be divided into two types - those requiring planning permission and those that do not. Of the first group, quarrying presents the most obvious concern as it is the one activity that can lead to the complete destruction of a cave. Less obvious impacts relate to the alteration of local hydrology, the input of the sediment into a cave system and the possibility of pollution. Quarrying in the Castleton area of Derbyshire illustrates well many of these concerns.

Although landfill operations in cavernous limestone needs to meet stringent conditions in order to satisfy the National Rivers Authority, the potential for pollution to water courses or the migration of landfill gas can have conservation implications.
Show cave developments also require planning permission. Each case depends on its merits and the fragility of the cave system. Detailed liaison and careful design are vital to the success of any project.

The second group of external threats relate to land management activities on land within the catchment of a cave system. Studies have shown that activities such as afforestation and land drainage can lead to increased sediment input to caves and changes in local hydrology [6]. Changes to water quality caused by the application of fertiliser may also create problems, particularly with the formation of speleothems. Increased acidification of water resulting from land management activity may lead to the active dissolution of such features. However, actual effects on individual caves resulting from land management changes still need to be considered on a site by site basis.


Many consider that the biggest threat to caves is created by cavers themselves. As soon as a new cave is discovered, there is a gradual, often insidious, degradation of the cave. The rate and degree of this degradation depends on the fragility of the features contained and the care of the cavers involved. The fewer the number and the more experienced the caver, generally the less the damage caused.


The idea behind cave conservation plans is to provide an integrated approach to cave conservation. Such plans should be developed on an individual site basis taking into consideration all the factors influencing the site. Cave conservation plans should have four principal. elements.

Documentation of the type of interest, location and current condition.

Assessment of the pressures on the cave - external and internal. For example, the number and experience of cavers should be considered. If a sensitive cave receives numerous inexperienced cavers, its conservation will require a different approach to a similar cave which receives only limited visits by experienced cavers. Consideration should also be given to which surface activities could affect the cave.

Practical conservation measures - in the light of the information gained from the first two elements, the necessary conservation measures can be assessed, outlined and implemented.

Monitoring: ongoing monitoring is required to assess the effectiveness of the conservation measures. Problems/deficiencies can then be identified and addressed.

The likely stages in following this approach are outlined in Figure 1.

Clearly, for such plans to be effective, they must involve the two primary groups affected, namely cavers and cave owners. For this to be achieved, plans should be devised, supported and implemented by cavers and owners who know the site, its features and the factors which may affect the cave's long-term conservation.


For our heritage of caves to be conserved for the benefit and enjoyment of our own and future generations, there has to be a fundamental change in attitudes towards protecting our caves. Quarry companies must avoid prime karat areas, landowners and cavers should be made aware of the implications of their actions on the surface and underground respectively. Cavers must become active in the conservation of caves.

English Nature can and does take a lead in protecting caves. Impacts from developments requiring planning permission are carefully assessed, and surface land management influenced where it is likely to be of harm to a cave system. English Nature is also working together with the National Caving Association and other caving bodies to promote cave conservation and changing people's attitudes towards actively safeguarding our natural heritage.


1. NATIONAL CAVING ASSOCIATION. 1986. Protect our caves.

2. JUDSON, D. (ed.). 1991. Caving practice and techniques. David and Charles, Newton Abbot.

3. NATURE CONSERVANCY COUNCIL. 1990. Earth Science Conservation in Great Britain - A Strategy.

4. PRICE, G. & WRIGHT, J.R. 1990. Cave conservation - a joint NCC/NCA initiative. In: Earth Science Conservation, 28, p9.

5. PRICE, G. & WRIGHT, J.R. 1991. Taking cave conservation into thee 21st Century. In: Descent, 98, p31.

6. GUNN, J. & HARDWICK, P. 1990. The impact of agricultural operations on the scientific interest of cave SSSIs. (Unpublished NCC report).