Conservation on the Bristol side of the Avon Gorge and the Downs
Find out how we are managing the Bristol side of the Avon Gorge and the Downs for its special wildlife and geology.
Conservation in the Avon Gorge
The Bristol side of the Avon Gorge used to be grazed by sheep which kept the grassy areas and rocky ledges where the rare plants thrived, open and largely free of trees. As a result, the limestone grassland was once much more widespread on this side of the Gorge.
When grazing stopped at the beginning of the last century, bramble and other shrubs began to take hold and finally secondary woodland developed. Large areas of limestone grassland, where rare plants such as the Bristol onion and Bristol rock-cress grew, were shaded out leaving just a few, small isolated pockets of this special habitat. Many of the Gorge’s rare plants became scarce – some almost disappeared. This was made worse by the introduction and spread of non-native plants such as holm oak, black pines, Alexanders and cotoneaster.
Since 1999 the Avon Gorge & Downs Wildlife Project has worked to save the remaining limestone grassland in the Avon Gorge. Specially trained conservation workers have carefully removed encroaching trees, scrub and non-native plants, helping to protect the limestone grassland in places such as St Vincent’s Rocks, Black Rocks Quarry and the Great Quarry. Management is ongoing on a rotational basis, so that each area of limestone grassland is managed regularly.
The project has also worked in the Gully to restore limestone grassland, where it existed before, by linking up small isolated pockets of grassland through the removal of trees and scrub. This has been done to help re-create larger more viable populations of rare plants so that they are less vulnerable to extinction. Read how our goat herd are helping in the section below.
There is evidence to show that the limestone grassland, and rare plant communities, are starting to recover and the Gorge is now considered to be either in ’unfavourable recovering’, or ‘favourable’ condition by Natural England.
It is also important to ensure that representative parts of the geological succession are open and available for study. Further investigations are needed to identify locations where important geological exposures have become covered in ivy and other vegetation, so that a clearance programme can be established. It is important to ensure that vegetation removal does not harm any nature conservation interest.
In a botanically rich part of the Gorge known as the Gully, trees and scrub had been removed by conservation workers and some of the grasslands had started to recover. However, this work could only be carried out in the winter, it’s labour-intensive and it was a constant battle controlling the scrubby re-growth. So, the project began to look for a more sustainable solution.
Following a grazing feasibility study, feral billy goats were chosen as these animals naturally prefer to eat scrubby, woody vegetation rather than grasses and wildflowers. They also suit the steep and difficult terrain.
In June 2011 a small herd of six feral Kashmir goats were bought from the Great Orme in North Wales and introduced into their specially fenced enclosure in the Gully. (The small number of rare whitebeam trees in this area were also fenced to protect them from the nibbling goats).
By 2019, we were down to two of the original herd. In March 2021, four rare breed Bagot goats joined the herd from Bristol’s Street Goat Project. In July 2021 four new billy goats arrived from the Great Orme to bolster the herd.
These ‘Hairy Conservationists’ are doing a fantastic job. Their constant browsing has opened the area up, giving the rare plants and insects a chance to thrive and spread again. They’ve also proven to be a popular feature of the Avon Gorge and Downs. We run regular ‘meet the goat keeper’ walks as well as school and playscheme education sessions which explain the goat’s role in helping to conserve the rare plants of the Gorge.
The goats are checked every day by the Bristol City Council Downs team and, at weekends by volunteers from the Friends of the Downs and Avon Gorge.
Conservation on the Downs
The Downs are common land, and for centuries commoners exercised their rights to graze animals here. The constant nibbling of sheep helped to maintain the variety of wild flowers and to prevent the growth of trees and shrubs. When grazing stopped in the 1920s, scrub started to grow up and smother the rare plant life of this once open and treeless downland. Nowadays, mowing and careful management of the scrub have replaced the crucial role of the sheep.
Certain areas of the Downs, the bits with the best un-improved limestone grassland (ie, areas which have never had fertilisers or pesticides put on them and have the widest variety of flowers and grasses), are left to grow tall during the spring and summer. These areas are managed as meadow areas. In late July, after the plants have flowered and set seed these areas are cut and the hay is taken away for composting. This keeps the vigorous grasses from taking over and swamping out the smaller wildflowers.
Scrub is now an important component of the Downs’ landscape and it can be a valuable habitat for invertebrates and birds. It includes scattered bushes in grassland to larger areas of vegetation, dominated by shrubs and tree saplings. Low dense scrub is of most value for invertebrates and nesting birds. The Clifton and Durdham Downs Scrub Management Plan has been created for the Downs to ensure the scrub is managed well.
Avon Gorge and Downs Management Plan
The ‘Management plan for the Bristol side of the Avon Gorge, Clifton and Durdham Downs’ describes what is important about these areas and to explain why they look and work the way they do. It seeks to identify the current and sometimes conflicting demands made by those that use these sites and it proposes a management regime that will maximise the potential for sustainable access and recreational use, whilst also protecting and enhancing its wildlife, heritage and landscape value.
Photographs: Meadow, Bristol rock-cress and goat (© Denice Stout), Conservation work on the Bristol side of the Gorge (© Angus Tillotson – Ropeworks), Pen and ink drawing of sheep on the Downs from below the Observatory; T L Rowbotham, 1830 (© Bristol Culture Mb 499). All other photos © Avon Gorge & Downs Wildlife Project and Phil Jearey. Goats in the Gully video © Jess Pitcher.