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The State of the Downs and how to save its future

This is my report describing the current State of the Downs and what must be done to not just save but to drastically improve its condition for both wildlife and people.


'The Downs' is a Bristolian term for the collection of Clifton and Durdham Downs (see map). It is a site that alongside the Avon Gorge and Leigh Woods; is world renowned for its ecology, geology and history.

The Downs was historically (up until the 1930s), grazed mainly by sheep. A combination of people few and far between with grazing of just the right amount meant that its meadow flora thrived throughout. Since the halt of grazing, the Downs has been used purely for recreation purposes and social use of all kinds; from circuses to gangs of party going youths. Its wildlife side on the other hand has been largely neglected apart from by a few wildlife enthusiasts like my self.

Know Your Place (1946 arial shows what the downs looked like soon after WWII - the whole site was meadow)


Today approximately 10% of the Downs is managed as hay meadow, cut annually around Early August. The vast majority is just mown to the ground as large expanses of short grass, with hundreds of scrubby copses and patches of secondary woodland dotted about mainly in the South. 10% is simply not enough! I think and believe it is possible to substantially increase land managed to something more like 85%. Leaving just 15% of land to be permanent year round short grass. I must be clear I do not want 85% of the downs to be annually cut hay meadow. I want a range or cutting regimes to be implemented in order to broaden species preferences and therefore increase biodiversity as well as biodiversity-mass. e.g. 50% to be managed as hay meadow (of which 10% is cut annually, and 40% cut on a bi-annual rota - half cut / half left one year, switch the next), 10% on longer schemes e.g. sections left alone for 3 years, others for 5 and others for 10 etc. with the remaining 25% to be temporary meadows or 'cut when needed, left when not' - areas not in permanent use such as the sites where circuses, festivals and football matches take place; left to grow and flourish when such events aren't on and cut (if needed) just before the events take place.


The 10% meadow 90% not is appauling by any means but what space is for the benefit of wildlife is increasingly becoming less so. Increasing pressures caused by increasing popularity and use of this common land (particularly by Dog walkers!); is pushing much of the Downs remaining riches towards extinction!

Dogs and walkers:

Being a large expanse of open land, the Downs is inevitably going to be very popular with dog walkers. Also because the Downs is common land, the rules for dogs to be on leads like in parks (not that people listen) is non-existant. The rising popularity of dogs has made this issue so much worse. Especially since Lockdown in 2020 when dog ownership increased massively.

A person with a dog causes a lot more damage to the natural world than a person without a dog. Why?

  • Trampling. People tend to walk in a straight line from A to B thereby concentrating to one route and; avoiding trampling elsewhere. However a person with a dog is very different. Dogs go in random directions. Off the lead and they will charge through meadows, knocking over any plant too delicate. On the lead and they will pull a long the oblivious, trundling, human with two left feet, whom tramples every orchid in sight! (even worse when they're staring at there phone not looking where they're going!)

  • Presence. The shear presence of dogs is enough to do a lot of damage. Studies have shown that ground-nesting birds such as Sky Larks and Nightjars in particular will be alerted if a dog is 500m away for a human its 300m. It is a primal instinct to birds that dogs are far more of a threat than humans. In busy places such as the Downs the least sensitive birds can cope and will get used to humans but dogs, they are on another level. Have you ever seen one chase a squirrel? Well most dogs are the same with anything that moves from butterflies to voles.

  • Dogs waste. Dog Faeces and Urine is extremely high in Nitrogen and Phosphorus and also very acidic. Enough to kill sensitive flora. Have you ever seen yellow patches in your lawn? What's worse is the effect over time. The odd dog every now and then is not going to have much of an affect but when there are hundreds continuously visiting an area then it becomes a problem and the balance of flora changes as soil nutrient levels shift. Vigorous hungry plants that are usually kept in check such as Perennial Rye grass take over and out-compete others and the once species rich grassland becomes poor.


Due to the popularity of the downs and the vast numbers of people who use it year round. Trampling has become a huge threat to the few areas that are allowed to grow long. People often have picnics and think it's a wonderful idea to have a barbeque slap bang in the middle of the meadow or to run around in it. This kind of activity is hugely destructive. Not only does it flatten and kill the most sensitive species such as Orchids and Yellow-wort. But it leaves the area more exposed to other problems. For example flowers once hidden amoung the meadow may become noticed and risk being picked. Or the strength of the meadow becomes affected - the vegetation supports each other. If a site has become heavily trampled then the meadow becomes weakened to the elements. The ground becomes more easily baked by the sun and rain may not be able to penetrate the ground as easily and so 'runs-off' rather than infiltrating it (an extremely important factor in our less predictable weather patterns and generally hotter drier summers). Or ripening seeds may fail to disperse because they are laying flat on the ground and are more susceptible to rot and seed eaters. However the one good thing about this issue is that it shows people are enticed towards meadows and definitely show an instinctive pull towards them. If significant areas were allowed to grow long; yes people would still trample them but the trampling would be more spread out and therefore the flora would have a much better chance. Certain areas would act as 'sacrificial meadows', protecting the more important sites.

Joy Riders:

Joy riders have been a big problem for a long time but it's getting worse! Quite often a few idiots may go around, particularly near the Sea Walls but In June 2022 the worst event yet occured. About 150 vehicles met up at the southern end of Ladies Mile and completely destroyed about a quarter of a Ha (full of rarities) in full flower, taking it in turns to do 'donoughts' and race around, ripping up the vegetation to nothing within seconds.

Useful Links:

Bird Guides

The Guardian


The Wildlife Trust

The Wildlife Trust


I'm proposing the complete transformation of how the Downs is managed to increase its value drastically to benefit both Wildlife and People.

In order for this to happen I want at least 85% of the Downs to be at some point managed and allowed to grow long on various systems of rotation. Certain areas should be treated the same as they are now as annually cut hay meadow, with others that are cut on a bi-yearly regime in order to promote the overwintering and larval stage of many invertebrates such as butterflies (currently the Downs is shockingly poor for this group of insects. Dark-green Fritillary for example was once a regular occurrence), others cut every 3 years, 5 years etc. And on the opposite end of the spectrum; some to be cut twice a year. Once in the autumn and then again in late Spring in order to promote two flushes of bloom. The whole objective is that as wide array of management schemes and rotas as possible should be achieved within a wide range of time schemes - implemented to provide for as many species as possible and therefore the biodiversity of the Downs.

What needs to be done to protect and recover the Downs flora:

  • Soil disturbance - harrowing and scuffing the ground has the potential to bring back long dormant seed to the surface. Some species which have gone locally extinct have the ability to 'come back from the dead!'.

  • Non intrusive boundaries should be implemented in certain areas such as dead hedging, low railings and temporary forms such as roped off areas must be put in place to 'controll the flow of feet' and to guide people away from sensitive areas and into places where they can stroll happily.

  • Ditch and bank system (works a bit like a shallow Ha-ha) should be created along certain spots to stop joy riders from entering but still provide open and safe access to the public. It would also create a new and very interesting habitat which in the process would allow seeds in the soil bank to re-surface. Potentially Some extinct species could be brought back!

  • More signage should be introduced such as 'dog-free zones', or 'dogs on short lead zones', 'Please stick to the paths', 'Please keep to the short grass' etc.

  • Footballers could be encouraged in particular spots for their useful skill of disturbing the ground in the winter - almost using them as flocks of sheep on rotation, moving them from site to site over the season to help unknowingly as a conservation technique, The studs on football boots scuff the ground and disturb seeds lying in the soil bank, bringing them up to the surface. Having areas where they play in the summer different to the winter allows the ground to recover and thrive.

  • Education. More information boards and guides / information talks should be encouraged; reaching out to local schools and communities etc.

Bee Orchid
Bee Orchid in the wildflower protection zone. The first time this plant has grown on the Downs in over a century. I counted 71 flower spikes in 2022.


If this is done not only will the future of the Downs ecology be secure but a significant sum of money will be saved.

The Downs biodiversity is in trouble and major action is needed right now! We cannot let this international treasure become the shadow of a legend.

Plant List:

This list encompases all records made by myself and historic one's (P means Present, E means Extinct)

  • Male Fern (Dryopteris felix-mas)
  • Scaly Male Fern
  • Soft Shield Fern
  • Broad Buckler Fern
  • Harts-tongue Fern
  • Southern Polypody
  • Intermediate Polypody
  • Black Spleenwort
  • Dewberry (Rubus Caesius)
  • Elm-leaf Blackberry (Rubus Ulmifolius)
  • Rubus armeniacus
  • Rubus vestitus
  • Rubus rubritinctus
  • Rubus eboracensis
  • Rubus raduloides
  • Rubus asperidens
  • Rubus troiensis
  • Traveller's-joy
  • Common Dog-rose
  • Glandular Dog-rose
  • Field-rose
  • Gorse
  • Western Gorse
  • Common Ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Atlantic Ivy (Hedera hibernica)
  • Common Hawthorn
  • Midland Hawthorn x Common Hawthorn
  • Blackthorn
  • Holly
  • Ash
  • Elder
  • Hazel
  • English Elm
  • Scot's Pine
  • Bhutan Pine
  • Yew
  • English Oak
  • Sessile Oak
  • Turkey Oak
  • Holm Oak
  • Cotoneaster salicifolius
  • Common Beach
  • Copper Beach
  • Common Whitebeam
  • Bristol Whitebeam
  • English Whitebeam
  • Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common-spotted Orchid)
  • Common Spotted x Southern Marsh Orchid
  • Southern Marsh-orchid
  • Green-winged Orchid
  • Bee Orchid
  • Autumn Lady's-tresses
  • Ox-eye Daisy
  • Harebell
  • Devil's-bit Scabious
  • Kidney Vetch
  • Bird's-foot Trefoil
  • Meadow Vetchling
  • Common Vetch
  • White Clover
  • Red Clover
  • Rough Clover
  • Black Medick
  • Black Knapweed
  • Dwarf Mouse-ear (Cerastium pumilum)
  • Common Mouse-ear
  • Sticky Mouse-ear
  • Common Chickweed
  • Thyme-leaved Sandwort
  • Fennel
  • Dropwort
  • Burnet Saxifrage
  • Common Whitlow-grass
  • Germander Speedwell
  • Common Field-speedwell
  • Belgium Dandelion (Taraxacum wallonicum)
  • British Dandelion (Taraxacum britannicum)
  • Purple-blotched Dandelion (Taraxacum excellens)
  • Jagged-leaved Dandelion (Taraxacum lacerifolium)
  • Multilobed Dandelion (Taraxacum angustisquameum)
  • Heath Bedstraw
  • Lady's Bedstraw
  • Wild Madder
  • Wild Thyme
  • Wild Basil
  • Bladder Campion
  • Common Rock-rose
  • Creeping Cinquefoil
  • Tormentil
  • Spring Cinquefoil
  • Cowslip
  • Primrose
  • Herb-Robert
  • Meadow Crane's-bill
  • Cut-leaved Crane's-bill
  • Dove's-foot Crane's-bill
  • Hedgerow Crane's-bill
  • Selfheal
  • Cat's-ear
  • Rough Hawkbit
  • Lesser Hawkbit
  • Wild Clary
  • Red Bartsia
  • Common Stork's-bill - rare (limited to one spot in the Dumps)
  • Pineapple Weed
  • Daisy
  • Betony
  • Ground Ivy
  • Yellow Rattle
  • Bristol Onion - extinct
  • Wild Onion
  • Field Garlic
  • Keeled Garlic
  • Rosy Garlic
  • Perforate St John's-wort
  • Dwarf Thistle
  • Creeping Thistle
  • Spear Thistle
  • Musk thistle
  • Smooth Sow-thistle
  • Prickly Sow-thistle
  • Perennial Sow-thistle
  • Great Lettuce
  • Common Nettle
  • Weld
  • Hoary Plantain
  • Ribwort Plantain
  • Greater Plantain
  • Meadow Buttercup
  • Bulbous Buttercup
  • Creeping Buttercup
  • Fairy Flax
  • Pale Flax
  • Salad Burnet
  • Honesty
  • Cow Parsley
  • Hogweed
  • Common Ragwort
  • Groundsel
  • Shepherd's Purse
  • Common Mallow
  • Musk Mallow
  • Lord's and Ladies
  • Perennial Dog's Mercury
  • Great Mullein
  • Beaked Hawk's-beard
  • Smooth Hawk's-beard
  • Autumn Hawkbit
  • Cuckoo Flower
  • Bristol Rock-cress
  • Hutchinsia
  • Hybrid Bluebell
  • Alexanders
  • Snowberry
  • Rosebay Willowherb
  • Great Willowherb
  • American Willowherb
  • Square-stalked Willowherb
  • Broad-leaved Willowherb
  • Hoary Willowherb
  • Hemp Agrimony
  • Sow-bread
  • Rustyback
  • Wall-rue
  • Maidenhair Spleenwort
  • Hieracium acuminatum
  • Hieracium argillaceum
  • Navelwort
  • Welsh Poppy
  • Hairy Bittercress
  • Wavy Bittercress
  • Wood Forget-me-not
  • Field Forget-me-not
  • Wood Avens
  • Wild Madder
  • Cleavers
  • Hedge Bedstraw
  • Parsley-piert
  • Common Sorrel
  • Broad-leaved Dock
  • Wood Dock
  • Curled Dock
  • Clustered Dock
  • Orange Day-lily
  • Narcissus pseudo-narcissus
  • Early Crocus
  • Horse Chestnut
  • Cotoneaster sternianus
  • Holly
  • Hazel
  • Small-leaved Lime
  • Common Lime
  • Ash
  • Narrow-leaved Ash
  • Norway Maple
  • Sycamore
  • Common Dogwood
  • Wild Privet
  • Silverweed
  • Wild Strawberry
  • Barren Strawberry
  • Wild Marjoram
  • Common Calamint
  • Red Dead-nettle
  • White Dead-nettle
  • Hairy Violet
  • Sweet Violet var. imberbis
  • Sweet Violet var. odorata
  • Early Dog-violet
  • Common Dog-violet
  • Quaking Grass
  • False Oat-grass
  • Meadow Oat-grass
  • Yellow Oat-grass
  • Crested Hair-grass
  • Fern Grass
  • Upright Brome
  • Common Bent
  • Cock's-foot Grass
  • Annual Meadow Grass
  • Early Meadow Grass
  • Rough Meadow Grass
  • Perennial Rye Grass
  • Smaller Cat's-tail
  • Tall Fescue
  • Red Fescue
  • Sheep's Fescue
  • Wall Barley
  • Glaucous Sedge
  • Field Wood-rush