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Historic Ship Wrecks at Risk

There are more than 37,000 sunken ships in England's territorial sea, a legacy of more than 6,000 years of maritime trade, exploration and warfare. At present, a relatively small number are protected by law in England.

They are threatened by both natural elements and commercial exploitation of the seabed. Their survival depends on sound management and the shared commitment of all the users of the seabed.

A diver surveys the exposed remains of the Invincible as part of a project funded by Historic England through the National Heritage Protection Plan.
A diver surveys the exposed remains of the Invincible as part of a project funded by Historic England through the National Heritage Protection Plan. © Michael Pitts and Pascoe Archaeology Services

The current situation

Wrecks are affected by both environmental and human factors. Because they are often in remote locations, their management can be challenging and changes to their condition are difficult to predict.

In 2014 Historic England once again audited all designated wreck sites to better understand their condition and vulnerability. As a result, four sites (8%) were deemed to be most at risk and are included on the national Heritage at Risk Register in 2015.

The number of protected wreck sites at risk remains the same as last year largely owing to the storms that occurred from mid-December 2013. These storms are likely to have been responsible for the reduction in protective sediments leaving historic wreck sites, particularly those inshore, vulnerable to chemical and biological decay.

On-going monitoring work funded by Historic England and others, will continue to ensure sites are prevented from becoming at risk and allow them to be removed from the Heritage at Risk Register in future.

The challenge ahead

Historic England has a statutory power to allocate funds to help preserve and maintain Protected Wreck Sites. However, our financial resources can only solve a small fraction of the problems.

Other partners also play a vital role in stabilising these important sites. Concerted efforts by owners, local government, national government departments and agencies and the organisations that make decisions about our environment can all help to make a real difference.

There are inherent difficulties with caring for this type of site. Despite these, careful management must be maintained if we are to pass them on to future generations in as good a condition as reasonably possible.

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Heritage at Risk Team