How grazing sheep protect ancient building ban on Bristol's Downs

  • Watch Richard Payne's report.

A small flock of sheep made for an unusual sight on one of Bristol's most loved open spaces - to preserve ancient grazing rights.

An 1861 charter declares 'commoners' must tether at least one sheep on the Downs for one day every five years to ensure the 450 acres in the north west of the city is never built on.

Around 150 pupils and staff from local schools learnt about the tradition while also learning about rearing sheep in the 21st century.

Shepherdess Melinda Baker helped the children get hands on with the black Welsh mountain sheep she'd brought into the city from Shepton Mallet. There were also demonstrations of wool weaving crafts, using a medieval style spinning wheel.

"They're very good grazers, very easy to keep and they keep the ground very compact," said Melinda. "They're good for everything. In fact, I'd advocate everyone should have sheep!

Children learnt about the history of sheep on Bristol Downs Credit: ITV News

"What an opportunity for the children to see the sheep and learn what a responsibility it is to have animals and respect them. It's wonderful to expose children to animals and find out more.

"I've kept sheep for 20 years but never brought them to Bristol. They seem to be enjoying it."

In total, 13 groups or individuals who live close to the Downs have historic grazing rights for a total of 1,885 sheep. The ‘Commoners of Durdham Down' include the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens, Badminton School, Trinity College, the St Monica Trust and individual householders.

Historically, hundreds of sheep were grazed on the Clifton and Durdham Downs, with a full-time shepherd employed until 1925 when the growing number of vehicles made grazing increasingly dangerous for the sheep.

Malcolm Bourne, of Trinity College, added: "Part of this process is to reserve that right in case there would be a time in the future when to graze sheep would be a really great thing to do.

"We've already got goats in the Avon Gorge to clear all the brambles. At the moment it provides a great educational piece and highlights the great work the wildlife project do, but I think it does present the opportunity for something to happen in the future."