14th Feb 2017 This week on the Downs. 1 Spring What a contrast there is with this time last year. The Hazel catkins are waving in the east wind, and the Snowdrops and Crocuses that have been planted on Clifton Green and one or two odd places elsewhere are opening in the sun, as are the very few Primroses, but there is still no sign of the golden flowers of Celandine which last year had already been out for six weeks. This time last year the white Cherry Plum flowers had been out for a month, and had just been joined by Blackthorn (the two species are closely related and easily confused). And last year Alexanders, the annual plant with abundant thick green leaves that tends to line the edge of the Gorge, was also flowering abundantly. The differences are all due to the exceptionally warm December we had in 2015, which was the warmest Bristol has recorded, and the boost to spring that it gave. This winter will be two degrees colder than last, and that can make a difference of three weeks to the dates of spring events.
21 Feb 2017 A week on the Downs 2 Dead hedges. Dead hedges puzzle people. What are they for? Simply to guide the runners round the edge of the wonderful wild flower meadows. Running is a wonderful sport, but it does damage the turf, despite the valiant efforts of the Downs Ranger’s team. Within a yard or two of some of the dead hedges there will, in June, be a magical display of native orchids, which have been increasing in number and spreading in area every year. And along with them there are a remarkable number of limestone-loving species that are locally and nationally rare. They are rare because they need a very specific habitat, a thin, poor soil which is cut just once a year, and has never been ploughed.
28 Feb 2017 A week on the Downs. 3 Deep Litter On Saturday morning we did the last deep Litter collection of the year. We do five every winter on the last Saturday f each month, and in the course of the winter cover most of the 240 acres of the Downs. We are armed with litter pickers and black plastic bags, and dive into every clump and pull out the plastic bags, cups and bottles, the BBQ sets, and baked bean cans, that people throw in among the nettles because they want to leave the place tidy. Last Saturday we went right down the New Zigzag, the path that runs down to the Portway parallel to Bridge Valley Road. Its not much used as a path because at the bottom you run straight into the Portway bus lane, but quite a lot of people throw rubbish out of cars if they are crawling up the hill. We got four big bags worth of rubbish.
7 March 2017 A week on the Downs 4 Daffodils The bulbs that suddenly appear in spring from apparently bare soil are always a joy. Snowdrops, Crocuses and now Daffodils have taken me by surprise all over the Downs. Each year I vow to remember where they were, perhaps to plant a few bulbs myself on some barren patch. Bulbs that are happy will spread themselves, and thus be a perennial memorial. And then each year I wonder whether prettifying the Downs is appropriate. The Downs is not a park, it is where, for 2000 years, animals have grazed, and created a unique and wonderful habitat, alive with the special plants that limestone grassland enables. Of course avenues of trees have been planted for guidance, scrub has developed because the sheep have gone, pitches have been created. I enjoy the randomness of the bulbs that appear- but oppose whoever it was that wrote their name in crocuses alongside the Westbury Road.
14 March 2017 A week on the Downs 5 Tree Planting At 10.00am on Monday 20th of March three Tulip Trees will be planted along Clay Pit Road, paid for by the Friends of the Downs. They will replace some of the avenue of Horse Chestnuts that date back about 150 years, and which have had to be felled in the past decade. Last winter some 60 trees were planted as replacements in the avenues of the Downs, and it was the Friends who first pointed out, three years ago that there were a growing number of gaps in the avenues. These avenues are recorded on the earliest map we have in 1746, and it is probable that they are very much older than that as they helped travellers find their way. The main roads across the Downs became part of the turnpike system in 1727, and the money raised at the turnpike gates was used to improve the surface, and provide milestones, of which there are still three on the Downs. Tulip Trees are a magnificent North American tree, and these will be the first of their kind on the Downs. Do come for the planting
21 March 2017 A week on the Downs 6 Blossom The Cherry family is called by botanists prunus, and they provide most of our early spring blossom. First out is the Cherry Plum which normally flowers on February 21st. It is a straggly bush and can be found on the edge of the Gorge and has bright white flowers, usually with the leaves. Then there is Blackthorn which on average flowers three weeks later on March 14th. It also is a straggling shrub, best seen on the gorge slope by the Promenade. It too has sparkling white flowers but on bare branches, and the two species are easily confused. The Wild Cherry or Gean has beautiful white flowers each on a long hanging stem, and its normal date is April 1st. There is a magnificent young tree in the Gully, and an older one on the Westbury Park area. On Clifton Green there are two fine cultivated cherries with double flowers which come later as does the lovely Japanese cherry at the top of the Mall, whose double flowers are greeny-white.
25 March 2017 A week on the Downs 7 Planting Trees. They call them heavy-standards, young trees, ten feet high, about twenty cm in girth, that have been grown in containers all their life. They have already been nurtured at Blaise Tree Nursery for five years, grown from seed, potted on at first month by month, and then moved outside into large tough black plastic containers with handles. Kept watered because their roots soon fill the compost, and they cant get water from the soil. Kept trimmed so that by the time they are planted the trunk is clear of branches for six feet. Our three Tulip trees had been moved into new and deeper containers probably two years ago, and their white roots roots had filled in every part. They were heavy, a two man lifting job, and the holes were dug to exactly fit the container. Once in the hole they would not rock, they could not be pulled out, and were as vandal-proof as they could be. The men from Gristwood and Toms, the contractor, were magnificent, as the weather, a fierce west wind and driving rain, was unrelenting. I say cheap at the price of £300 each, and they will be there long after we are all dead. Quite a memorial.
28 March 2017 A week on the Downs 7 Ravens Everyone knows about the Peregrines, but the Ravens are just as remarkable. The two species are often found nesting in the same area, though they sometimes fight over territory. The Raven has the advantage that it lays its eggs in February, and so is well established when the Peregrines start house hunting. This has the advantage that the Raven chicks fledge at the end of May when the Peregrines are just hatching, so there is not a lot of competition between them. However Ravens normally feed on carrion such as road kills. The Peregrine catches pigeons, and if is not hungry it plucks the prey and then hides the remains in a niche on the cliff. The Ravens then sniff it out and eat it. There are two or perhaps three pairs of Ravens on the Downs. One nests on the water tower, another close to the Peregrine site and there is a third pair somewhere in Stoke Bishop. Their wonderful cronking calls are a delight. 7th April 2017 A week on the Downs. Aliens A member sent me a note via this website about a plant that he had found which he thought was the Spring Squill. This is a very rare plant, confined to Cornwall, and has never been reported here. But Scillas of various species are common in gardens. They are small pretty spring bulbs with blue flowers, and what he had found was one of them. There are a lot of plant species on the Downs which have managed to jump over the garden wall and some have clearly been thrown over. These include three species of Allium which were gathered by a botanist in France, and thrown over the Gorge edge in 1905 to beautify the Downs. Two of the species have spread widely and one is still where he threw it. Garden aliens also include a lot of Spanish Bluebells which are larger and more upright than the native species, and also interbreed with them. Most of the Bluebells on the Downs are probably aliens. And if you find a plant you don’t recognise please use the contact system on the web site and I will hope to identify it.
14 Apr 2017 A week on the Downs. Downs Drains You may have noticed that every time it rains huge puddles appear on the roads that cross the Downs, and you have probably thought “why can’t the Council keep the storm drains clean?” It was only very recently that I discovered the answer. In the nineteenth century drains were built beneath urban streets, and linked together into a system to take excess water off the streets and ultimately down into the Avon. But out in the countryside when you built a road you built a ditch alongside it to ensure the surface stayed dry. And if your road, like Circular Road, was on a solid flat rock surface, you built soakaway drains at intervals where there was a problem. So as soon as you get half an inch of rain the soakaway fills up, and takes its time to vanish into the rock. We discovered this just after we had completed the renovation of the Victorian steps. There was a massive storm, the soakaway filled up, and the excess rain became a river running down the line of the steps, and dumping the gravel, that had been so carefully laid on the steps, on the downhill side of the slope. So we dug a ditch on one side of the steps, and hope next time it will divert the flood.
A week on the Downs Ivy If you live on berries this is the hardest time of the year. They have all been eaten, except for one species, the Ivy. Because the Ivy flowers so late, and flowers can still be found in December, its berries ripen over the next three months, and can be a vital resource for migrant Redwings, and native Blackbirds. But Ivy disfigures parkland trees, whose dramatic profiles against the low winter sunlight are a magical feature of the Downs. The Downs Ranger does what he can to keep tree trunks clean, and, because Ivy just uses trees as a support, not a source of food and water, it is easy to cut through the stems at ground level and end the problem.
10 May 2017 A week on the Downs. The Rarest Tree I am sometimes asked, what is the rarest tree on the Downs, and the answer is probably one of the 19 micro-species of Whitebeam which have been identified in the Gorge. But most of them are only accessible on a rope. On the Downs surface there are several unusual species, but the rarest is the Cluster Oak close to Proctor’s Fountain. The original tree was found in Savernake Forest in the 1940s and is a natural sport of the native tree. About six other adult trees are known. It grows very, very, slowly, and has twisted and contorted leaves and very short shoots. But it does produce acorns, and comes true from them. It was probably planted after the last war, at much the same time as many of the other trees on this triangle, but it has hardly grown at all.
A week on the Downs The oldest tree Trees grow at a pretty constant rate, faster when young, slower with age, but for most species the average is 2.5 cm a year. Some species Poplars, Leylandii, Sequoias, are much faster at up to six cm a year, and some especially Lime, are slower at tw0 cm a year. Shrubby trees like Hawthorn and Apple are much slower, at only about one centimetre a year or less. So if you measure an average oak it will be 2.50 cm in girth after a century, but a Lime will be just two metres, and a hawthorn just one metre The tree with the greatest girth that I have been able to measure is a Beech tree off Stoke Road, with a girth of 490cm, though I think it was planted in about 1860 .The tree that may be the oldest is a large-leafed Lime near Clay Pit road which has a girth of 470cm, and may be 220 years old. But I have a sneaky feeling that some of the Hawthorns with many stems which have long since lost their orihginaltrunk may be 350 years old
A week on the Downs. The running track The track created by the pounding of a million feet over the past twenty years is an interesting phenomenon. It is much nicer running on grass that tarmac, but the track has in places worn down to the rock beneath, and in other places has, at least in wet weather, created a morass. A solution to the problem has doubtless been earnestly discussed at various levels, including spending money on an actual track, having alternative routes on different dates, banning running on grass, and I don’t know what else. This winter the Downs Ranger solved the mud problem with a load of bark chippings, and this has, along Circular Road, been extended. A nice spongy biodegradable surface has been created, It is more attractive than the previous muddy worn surface, though it will take time to green up. It’s a neat compromise.
31 May A week on the Downs.14 Zoo parking At the Council Planning Committee on May 17th the Zoo was given planning permission to use the land off Ladies mile on 42 days a year for the next three years. This was the end result of a battle between supporters of the Zoo and opponents of the use of the downs surface for parking. The Zoo has a license from the Downs Committee for parking, for which the zoo pays a small rent, and this license runs out in December. So far this year the Zoo has used the site on nine occasions. The creation of the residents parking zone in Clifton, and the new parking scheme on the Downs has altered the previous situation, and the financial crisis which means that there will be no money for the Downs from the city Council by 2020 alters it again. At present the parking charges for both the Zoo North car park and the land off Ladies Mile go to the Zoo. In future they must surely go to support the maintenance of the Downs.
15 June 2017 A week on the Downs. Elder flower In the middle of May the Downs is dominated by Hawthorn flowers, and a century ago the sight and scent of the veteran Hawthorns was famous, and attracted hundreds of visitors. In the middle of June the Elder flowers take over. Their flowers are large white disks the size of plates with hundreds of tiny white flowers. They smell wonderful, and are used to make elder-flower wine, and a non-alcoholic drink. The Elder, like the Hawthorn, is more of a bush than a tree, but when in flower you are suddenly aware that it is almost as common in the Downs as the Hawthorn. Also like the Hawthorn it frequently sends up new stems from its roots, and adopts a sprawling structure rather than becoming tall. The elder berries are very small black berries which ripen in early August. They are rapidly eaten by thrushes and other birds, and can also be made into a delicious cordial. People tend to disregard the Elder, but it plays a very significant role in the natural world.
24 June 2018 Lime trees in bloom The lime trees have just come into bloom, and their scent will waft across the Downs for the next two weeks. Bees can become intoxicated with their nectar. There are at least four different species. First the old Common Limes, with large down hanging flowers, and lots of shoots around the bottom of the trunk, and big smooth leaves. Then the Small-leaved Limes, whose light green flowers are held upwards, and change the colour of the whole tree, with small smooth leaves. There are also some large-leaved Limes, with down-hung flowers and big furry leaves that are often dished, and finally a few Silver-Leaf Limes with big leaves that are white underneath. They have tended to grow faster than the other species and form a more-shapely tree.
28 June 2017 A week on the Downs 16 Weeding the Gallery On two successive Friday mornings a small group of Friends of the Downs enthusiast have been working on the gallery over the Portway below the Suspension Bridge to remove the seed heads of Alexanders plants before they ripen. This is an aggressive annual species that is increasingly dominating the vegetation of the gallery which was built in 1980, to prevent rocks from the cliff face falling on to the Portway. It was originally sown with the native limestone species from the Downs, including rarities such as Spiked Speedwell, Bristol Onion, Bloody Cranesbill. Some of these survive along with Hawkweed, Small Scabius, Salad Burnet and Catsear. For the past three years led by Libby Houston, we have removed the seed heads of hundreds of plants before they ripen, hoping that no juveniles will develop. It is an awe-inspiring site, the huge vertical rock face above, the Portway traffic roaring below. Maybe this year’s work will enable the smaller plants to flourish.
1 July 17 National meadows Day July 1 has been declared National Meadows Day and a variety of organisations have been leading walks around prominent local meadows. The FODAG meadows walk was a week early, and, because of the very hot spell in mid-June, the meadows were already past their best. However a large party was shown the fascinating way in which different species occupy different areas of the Downs, and we found most of the species we had anticipated. We started looking at the differences between Catsear and Rough Hawkbit, two very common dandelion type plants, and then found Thyme in abundance with Yellow Wort and Centaury. The Common Spotted Orchids were over, but we found a Bee Orchid. On the edge of an area from which scrub had been removed there was a very vigorous Agrimony plant, which is quite uncommon on the Downs. We found Crow Garlic and Ladies Bedstraw, Tormentil, Scabius and masses of Yellow Rattle. The names are as wonderful as the plants. There are well over 300 native plants species on the Downs, and the meadows are as rich as any in the land.
16 July 2017 Cycling Sunday Warm, overcast, and rather a strong SW wind across Sea Walls. 8.30 am and the FOD tent going up alongside the Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project and Sustrans, and other organisations arriving by the minute. A juvenile Peregrine Falcon stopped as all in our tracks, swooping past at almost eye leave before it was seen off in no uncertain manner by the resident adult. Soon hundreds of bikes of all shapes and sizes began to appear. One rider was still in nappies- I kid you not. There were bikes made of wood, bikes made in Bristol (Stokes Croft) bikes made for two or three or four, bikes for the disabled and just one of the new yellow bikes that you hire on an app. You could get your brakes adjusted, your wheels pumped, you could make a smoothie by cycling very hard, and create original art by spinning a card- just add paint and pedal power. There was even a St Johns ambulance cycling squad. It was a wonderful celebration of the bike, a joy for all.
17 July 2017 A week on the Downs Two special plants this week. Ragwort is in full flower, often towering over the grasses, a brilliant yellow which can be spotted a long way off. But it is poisonous to cows and horses, and the hay from the Downs can’t be sold unless the ranger can guarantee that it is Ragwort free. It grows readily on waste site, and must be removed from anywhere around the Downs to ensure that it does not spread. The small white flower that has sprung up all over the Downs since the last mow, which looks a bit like Cow Parsley is Burnet Saxifrage- a silly name as it is related to neither. It is one of three late flowering umbellifers, Carrot which is rare on the Downs and Upright Hedge Parsley, which has a prickly stem, whereas the Burnet Saxifrage is smooth, and has seeds with burrs on them like Cleavers.
22 July 2017 The end of summer. Unusually, until this past week, 35 0f the 50 days since the start of June have been rainless. The grass turned yellow, and young trees, planted last winter, were in distress, their leaves turning yellow and falling. Our three Tulip trees on Clay Pit Road seemed to be coping, but some Small-leaved Limes were in trouble. But we have now had 50 millimetres of rain during July, and new green grass shoots are bursting out, and the buds on the young trees are producing new leaves. The Downs meadows are all about to be cut. They have not grown very high this year, and all the wild plants have set seed early. The hay-making process needs three dry days, as the hay has to dry after being cut and before it can be bailed. A key operation before cutting is to pull the Ragwort, which is poisonous to stock, and its presence would make the hay unusable. Cutting the hay marks the end of summer, the start of harvest-time.
29 July 2017 Death of a goat. It was almost exactly six years ago in July 2011 that six billy goats were brought to Bristol from the wild herd on the Great Orme peninsular in North Wales, and introduced to their new home, the enclosure around the Gully on the Downs. Since then the six have worked their way through the thick scrub of Bramble, Ivy, Ash, Cotoneaster, and Nettles that crushed the wonderful array of limestone grassland plants that were once the glory of the area, and by eating the bark of Yew and Sycamore and Ash, they have brought light back to the surface. They are immensely popular, very long suffering and patient with human intruders, and tolerant of dogs on leads, and on Saturday 29 July one was found dead at the foot of the cliff by the Portway. The cause of death is unknown. The other five will continue the wonderful work they have begun.
12 Aug 2017 Gully Plants I have been monitoring the plant species in the Gully since before the Goats arrived. In 2010 there were 75 species found. By 2016 this had increased to 129 and this year the total to date is 135. Monitoring has become more regular, as different species stand out at different time of the year. There were some exciting finds. Some are common plants that have only just found their way into the Gully, like Catsear, Creeping Cinquefoil, Fairy Flax, and Ladies Bedstraw. Others are much less common; Wall Rue growing on a cliff face; Spurge Laurel, a rare local limestone specialist that flowers in January; Upright Hedge Parsley which is a small prickly umbellifer which is common enough on the Gorge edge, but new to the Gully, a lot of Hawkweed Oxtongue which is a tall dandelion like plant with twisted leaves; Calamint. a late flowering member of the mint family. After five short years to site is slowly returning to the botanical jewel it once was.
21 August 2017 No men went to mow. A month ago I wrote about the imminent mowing of the meadows on the Downs. It hasn’t happened, because August has had rain almost every day of the month. The date when the meadows are mown has a huge impact, because the later it is the more species will have set and ripened seed. When we look at the Downs we don’t realise that we are looking at a slow-motion battlefield, in which every species is trying to expand its population. Each species has its own ecological niche, which explains why in some areas the grass is thick and long and in others the sward is dominated by tiny plants like Thyme or Fairy Flax. And every species will react differently to drought or rainfall, hot sunshine or bitter frost. A very late mowing, as this year, will give opportunities to some species that have rarely had a chance to set seed.
A week on the Downs Mown at last August has been damp and cool, but at last on Wednesday 23rd there came a second day with no rain, and the big mowing machine came in came in and made short work of cutting the meadows which were all rather thin as a result of the eight weeks of dry weather in April and June. Thursday 24th the hay tedder was at work, turning the hay to dry it, and then on Friday 25th the hay was raked into neat rows which were then bailed up and removed for sale. It was all done with minimum fuss. One result was that the contrast between the brilliant emerald green of the mown area and the whitish tone of the tall meadow grasses vanished.
30 August 2017 A week on the downs Autumn Ladies Tresses Autumn Ladies Tresses is a tiny plant of the orchid family which comes into flower now. It is at most two inches high, and has a single vertical stem which is twisted round, and carries tiny white flowers all the way up it. It only occurs on limestone soils that are kept very short by grazing or mowing. They have been found in just 40 of the 1500 one-km squares in the region, and can be seen on the Downs this year in exceptional numbers. They are in an area of the meadows which has not been mown, close to the Peregrine watch site. Their name is derived from some remote period when ladies hair styles involved very complex braiding
7 September 17 A week on the Downs. How long does it take to stage a pop concert? First you put up a lot of yellow signs. Then on bank holiday Saturday and Sunday you put up a large tastefully painted green fence. (The roads are pretty clear so you don’t disrupt anything). On Monday and Tuesday you build the stage. Wednesday and Thursday you put in the loos and the roundabouts, and on Friday you open for children (did any go?). On a sunny Saturday you close all the local roads, set up very helpful wardens and start making music at about six pm. You end at eleven, and by Sunday morning the whole area is silent, still, clean and tidy. You move the stage out on Monday, and by Thursday evening the green fence has gone, and the only sign left is some yellowing grass that will recover as soon as it gets a little sun. QED.
13 Sep Death of a Beech One of the line of Beech trees on the Promenade had to be felled on August 20th, probably as a result of a partial collapse. This wonderful avenue has trees of many different girth as at various times trees have died and had to be replaced. There was a single line of trees in 1830, and this was later doubled, but there are none of the original trees, and we do not know what species they were. The normal rule about the increase in the circumference of a tree with age is that it is on average 2.5cm a year. This rule implies an annual growth ring with a width of 4m. But the average width of the rings on the felled tree was 9mm, giving a growth rate of 5.6cm, double the standard rate. It had about 60 rings, so it was probably planted in 1957, just after the last war. It is only when you get a chance to count the rings that you can be sure of a tree’s age.
23 Sept 2017 A week on the Downs Freshers Day One amazing event. Huge tents, massive space, 17,000 students all enjoying a bright warm September day, loading themselves with goodies, advice, information. Every student organisation was there, and every local charity. The bussing system up Whiteladies Road seemed to work- though it did rather jam things up partly because students kept using the Zebra crossings at the top of Blackboy Hill. The first two hours were slow, but after that the Friends of the Downs stand was more or less constantly talking to someone. In two and a half hours I had sixty conversations, and we probably clocked up 150 in the day which is a small proportion of 17,000, but you only need to strike gold once or twice. A lot of the students had never been to Bristol before, a lot were clearly new to England, and more than a little overwhelmed, but the whole event was relaxed, and inclusive. And seven brave souls came on the walk on Sunday
30 Sept 2017 A week on the Downs Death of an Ash. There are a number of veteran ash trees on the Downs, all with girths of three metres or above, all dating from the time before the Downs Act. One of the most significant was blown down last week. It was part of the avenue of trees lining the turnpike road from Clifton to Stoke Hill which was abandoned as a road at some point after 1756. The modern avenue is of Beech Trees, which replaced the Huntingdon Elms that were destroyed by Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s. They were planted c 1880, and may have replaced an avenue of Common Lime trees, as there are one or two veteran survivors on the avenue. But it is also possible that the early avenue was of Ash trees, as there is a wood of veteran ash trees on the northern edge of the Downs, and that this tree was the last survivor. Its stump is hollow, so its rings cant be counted, but it had a girth of 360cm. It was not the oldest Ash on the Downs, but its demise is a loss.
7 Oct 2017 A week on the Downs Deep litter On the last Saturday of every winter month we organise a Deep-litter collection. Equipment is simple- gloves, litter picks and two plastic bags, and last Saturday Sept 30th off we marched across the long thin strip along Westfield Park called Granny’s Downs. We dive into the scrub into which people have thrown all manner of junk, thinking, presumably, out of sight out of mind. There are many metal BBQ sets, much aluminium and plastic foil, many plastic water bottles, drink cans, wine bottles. Sometimes we find an abandoned tent site, often with appropriate equipment. There have been TV sets and computer bits, and on one notable occasion a very fine piece of limestone rock covered in Quartz crystals. That went to the museum. We do not get as much litter now as we did originally, which suggests that our work is worthwhile. And if you have not joined us yet, why not give it a go on October 28th.
15 Oct 2017 A week on the Downs Ivy removal Ivy is a very successful plant, and plays a vital role in the biodiversity of the Downs. It starts to flower late, in early September, and it remains in flower until the end of December. It thus provides vital nectar to all the late pollinators. Its fruit then ripen from Mid-November through into February, providing berries for birds and mammals when other nots have all been consumed. But it disfigures specimen trees, and, on the Downs, leads to the collapse of veteran hawthorns. Because it only uses a tree as a support, and gets all its nutrition from the soil, it is in theory easy to keep trees free from it. But there are some 40 substantial specimen trees, parts of the Downs Avenues, that are becoming infested, and last week a small group of volunteers cleared Ivy from nine trees near Wills Hall. This was an initial experimental effort to see how easily Ivy removal could be achieved, and FODAG will do the same work in other areas later in the winter.
28 Oct 2017 A week on the Downs Dead Leaves Every autumn millions of leaves fall and coat the roads and paths and grass. And by spring they have all gone. Some of the hard work on the grassland is done by millions of worms, who carry the decaying leaves underground, and eat them. The end result is worm-casts, and it is a sobering thought that all the soil in which our plants grow has been created by worms. But the Downs Ranger sweeps the roads and paths and has two sites where he dumps the leaves. One is close to the Promenade, where there is a steep slope down to Bridge Valley Road, and it is now so full of leaf mould that a new site has begun to be used. Leaf mould is the most wonderful compost there is, but the slope is very steep and mining it would be difficult. The new site is in the Ash Wood at the northern edge of the Downs, and has yet to turn into leaf mould.
6 Nov 2017 A week on the Downs. Autumn My first blog was entitled Spring, and in July I wrote the end of Summer. This has been an early Autumn, with fruit ripening early, and now many trees going bare early, often without changing colour in any serious way. This has been partly because of the two storms in October, partly because October was warmer than usual, and had no frosts. But for some trees colour is now at its peak. Beech trees in particular have laid down their golden carpet, and Norway Maples turned deep purple. The fine North American Red Oak on the Promenade has been bright red, spreading down from the top over the past two weeks, and Sweet Gum have done the same. There are also some startling differences; two Turkey Oaks on Clifton Green, one bare, one still bright green. On ladies Mile the Silver Limes are still fully clothed, the large-leafed Limes starting to shed leaves, and the small-leaved limes almost bare.
A week on the Downs. Autumn My first blog was entitled Spring, and in July I wrote the end of Summer. This has been an early Autumn, with fruit ripening early, and now many trees going bare early, often without changing colour in any serious way. This has been partly because of the two storms in October, partly because October was warmer than usual, and had no frosts. But for some trees colour is now at its peak. Beech trees in particular have laid down their golden carpet, and Norway Maples turned deep purple. The fine North American Red Oak on the Promenade has been bright red, spreading down from the top over the past two weeks, and Sweet Gum have done the same. There are also some startling differences; two Turkey Oaks on Clifton Green, one bare, one still bright green. On ladies Mile the Silver Limes are still fully clothed, the large-leafed Limes starting to shed leaves, and the Small-leaved Limes almost bare.
A week on the Downs The FODAG AGM Well attended. The proposed minor modifications to the constitution went through on the nod, but the second in house charge was changed to £9- in other words two people at one address would be asked for £19 in future. The Committee, with two new members, were duly elected, and the accounts, showing that we had £5,800 in the bank, down £1000 on last year, mainly because we paid for the three Tulip Trees. There were then eight reports covering most of our activities in the past year, which has been a busy one. A new regular Conservation Sunday has been added to our activities, and members were urged to respond to the Parks Consultation that the city had published. The Chairman looked forward to our tenth anniversary year, and after coffee, Adrien Tomorr outlined the plans for the bridge over Bridge Valley Road which had finally been given full planning approval. This was followed by animated discussion.
A week on the downs. Nov 26 Another goat is killed On Friday 18 November a second goat was killed in the Gully by a dog. The dog and its owner were walking down the Gully, but the dog was not on the lead, and started to chase a goat, which fled to the cliff, and broke its neck in the fall. The owner ignored advice from a witness that he should control the dog and the witness rang the Downs Ranger. New notices have been put on the gates stressing the absolute necessity of keeping dogs on the lead, and English Nature and the Downs Committee will need to think about how to respond. There are clear animal welfare considerations.
4 December 2017 A week on the Downs. The Avenues by Richard Bland The earliest drawings we have of the Downs from the 18th century show it as a wide open treeless space, both on the surface and on the face of the Gorge, which was being relentlessly quarried. The earliest trees we know of appear in a map of 1746, and show that the Turnpike Roads across the Downs had avenues of trees along them, presumably to guide travellers across the featureless space. In all there are 18 avenues on the Downs, some very long like those on the Westbury Road, Stoke Road, and the abandoned road from Clifton to the top of Stoke Hill which have all been continuously renewed over time. And there are smaller avenues along Circular Road and Saville road, which were new roads in the 1870s, and in Westbury Park and Clifton Green. I am investigating the species used, and the ages of the trees that now exist to create a history of the Downs avenues.
11 December 2017 A week on the Downs: The Star Party After the snow came the Star Party. The clouds cleared, the harsh north wind dropped, and all was set for a very cold night full of stars. At six the Bristol Astronomical Society telescopes began to appear at Sea Walls. Red torches glowed. Robin set up his water heater; Mandy, whose Gorge and Downs Project had arranged everything, sorted out the stewards. There was no moon. The balloons, glowing with pink light were set out in a circle at the Bristol Dark Sky Discovery site. Families began to arrive, and were taken out to sing, and have the constellations pointed out with gleaming green laser light. Alas low cloud began to stream in from the north, and Orion and the Plough, and Cassiopaea largely vanished from sight. But every five minutes or so the flashing lights of a plane appeared low over Dundry heading for the airport. The coffee was hot, the star cookies were tasty, and the singing added charm. You should have been there.
16 December 2017 A week on the Downs: Snow Enough snow fell on Sunday 10th to make a decent snowball because they were still there on the Monday after a frost-free night. It was the first snow since March 2014, and it is interesting to look at the records of snow in Bristol, which I have back to 1948. In the past 69 years we have had 12 winters with no snow, and an average of 8 days a winter with snow lying. There has been snow on Christmas Day five times. The earliest snow fall was on November 23rd and the latest March 8th. The snowiest period is January 13th to 17th when snow has been present on ten or more winters. There was a period of five snowless winters in the 1950s, then eight snowy winters 1963 to 1970, then a period of little snow, then snowy winters 1978 to 1982. Since 1986 there have been fewer than ten days of snow until the 2009 and 2010 winters. What does this prove? Not a lot.
29 December 2017 A week on the Downs: An outbreak of poetry Large new warning signs of the grave dangers of falling over a vertical cliff edge have sprouted in the past week. Some Health and Safety Insurance Officer must have had a panic attack. There is a problem about on the one hand keeping people informed and on the other keeping the Downs free of obtrusive signs. As an antidote some anonymous poet has plasticised dozens of poems and attached them to dead hedges, parking bollards etc. I expect they will be treated as litter, alas, and I feel should photograph them all before they vanish. Ephemera is fleeting, but we need more spontaneous joy in the world. Poet, we thank you.
A week on the Downs Dec 27th A poem for the new year. The poems have been replaced by snow and the Downs is covered with snowmen. I Took photos of the poems, and here is one of them
Be You Who am I? I hear you ask, Why am I here? What is my task? Sssh I say and listen to me, I’ll tell you now all you can be. You are the thoughts in your mind, the leaves on a tree, You are the wind in the mountains and all the fish in the sea. You are a new baby’s breath and the blind’s will to see. You are everything and nothing, you are black, you are white. And, with as much as a wish, you could be daytime or night. You see, my child, as much as you ask, The answers the same as the time you asked last. You’re a perfect creation of all that was true To come down here and just, be you
5 January 2018 A week on the Downs A warning. Just before Christmas I got a speed ticket. For travelling at 28MPH in a 20MPH zone, on Ladies Mile. I could not recall the journey, but there I was on video. It rankled a bit. I’ve been driving for 60 years without a speed or parking ticket. I campaigned busily a decade or more ago for the introduction of 20MPH zones. And I realised that I had become forgetful, and I had begun driving at a reasonable speed given the conditions on roads I have known for fifty years, and forgotten the new rules. I paid up. And I now drive with greater caution, ignoring the impatient car behind me flashing his lights.
14 Jan 2018 A week on the Downs. Lichens. The Conservation Sunday on Jan 14th was helping to clear brambles from the Lichen Trail on the Downs established by the Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project. There is to be a walk round the trail on March 3, so we were anxious to improve access. Lichens are an amazing form of life. They are a fungus and an algae living symbiotically. They occur everywhere; on pavements, on bare rock surfaces, on roofs, on tree trunks, and there are as many species as there are plants. They grow very, very, slowly, and are very sensitive to light, to pollution and dampness. If you want to know more sign up for the walk.
29 Jan 2018 A week on the Downs 43 Downs Secrets. Those who know the Downs well know the special sites where they can find the earliest flowers. Snowdrops are out, and are rather prominent around trees on Clifton Green, but there are one or two particular sites where they can be seen. They are quite difficult to establish, as they don’t work well from dry bulbs. Croci are also just in flower. They are not native, and the Downs are a natural habitat not an artificial park, but they can also be found on Clifton Green, and round a fine Lime tree planted to commemorate a former Ranger near the Promenade. Last winter I found the brilliant yellow Winter Aconites in flower this month by Clay Pit Road. It is one of the features of the Downs that many of its special plants can be found at just a single site. Increasing the distribution of many native species would make the site less fragile.
Feb 2018 A week on the Downs The FODAG AGM Well attended. The proposed minor modifications to the constitution went through on the nod, but the second in house charge was changed to £9; in other words two people at one address would be asked for £19 in future. The Committee, with two new members, were duly elected, and the accounts, showing that we had £5,800 in the bank, down £1000 on last year, mainly because we paid for the three Tulip Trees. There were then eight reports covering most of our activities in the past year, which has been a busy one. A new regular Conservation Sunday has been added to our activities, and members were urged to respond to the Parks Consultation that the city had published. The Chairman looked forward to our tenth anniversary year, and after coffee, Adrien Tomorr outlined the plans for the bridge over Bridge Valley Road which had finally been given full planning approval. This was followed by animated discussion
5 February 2018 A week on the Downs: Dead Hedging The dead hedges need to be revivified as much as a live hedge needs clipping. They are made by driving vertical posts into the soil and filling, or weaving, branches between them, and finishing off with small verticals thrust down through the hedge to add stability. Sounds simple. But the soil on the Downs is often two inches deep, and even where it is deeper the posts soon rot. Also, all the infill material starts going rotten, and by the end of a year the hedge will often shrink to half its size. So, each year we compress the material that remains, and add more to make a hedge which, both visually and practically, does the job of guiding runners and pedestrians clear of the key sites in the meadows, where the orchids are proliferating. A little bit of clipping of wayward shoots, and everything looks smart and new.
5 February 2018 A week on the Downs: Dead Hedging The dead hedges need to be revivified as much as a live hedge needs clipping. They are made by driving vertical posts into the soil and filling, or weaving, branches between them, and finishing off with small verticals thrust down through the hedge to add stability. Sounds simple. But the soil on the Downs is often two inches deep, and even where it is deeper the posts soon rot. Also, all the infill material starts going rotten, and by the end of a year the hedge will often shrink to half its size. So, each year we compress the material that remains, and add more to make a hedge which, both visually and practically, does the job of guiding runners and pedestrians clear of the key sites in the meadows, where the orchids are proliferating. A little bit of clipping of wayward shoots, and everything looks smart and new. Report on Conservation Sunday Winter programme, 2017-2018.
15 Feb 2018 There have been five meetings to date. 18 members have helped on at least one occasion, and we have done some 74 man hours of work. Three of the meetings involved clearing scrub that had grown over sites that Mandy Leivers uses, including the Lichen trail. One was removing Ivy from specimen trees, and the last was giving the Victorian steps a spring clean. Scrub clearance work stops by law on March 1 to protect breeding birds, but this does not prevent two types of work, cutting through Ivy growing up specimen trees and cutting back shoots from areas of cleared scrub sites in the meadows which will not be mown. We also have approval to repaint the white tree, and hope to generate some media interest.
22 February 2018 A week on the Downs 45: Budbreak We tend to judge the onset of spring by when flowers come into bloom; they are both obvious, and beautiful. But for many trees the key event is not coming into flower, but coming into leaf, a process known as Bud-break. Deciduous trees appear to hibernate once their leaves fall, but in fact there is a constant process of development of the buds that were laid down in the summer. Most trees have two sorts of buds, the leaf buds and the flower buds. The former, in particular the ones at the tip of a previous shoot, are going to expand often with great rapidity as the tree grows. The flower buds are more complex, some male, some female; the job of the males is to produce enough pollen to ensure that the female flowers are pollinated, and they soon fall to the ground. The female flowers then have the very complex process of creating a nut or an acorn or an apple in the short summer ahead. It may be cold now, but buds are already swelling, often changing the colour of the tree as they do so. Take a look.
2 April 2018 A week on the Downs March was an interesting month, with three cold spells interspersed with two warm ones. The Zoo did not use its emergency parking area as it was far too wet, and visitor numbers too low. The Conservation Sunday team removed Ivy from a line of veteran Limes trees in Westfield Park. Funderworld rides whizzed through the night sky, but I doubt the visit will have made much profit, which is a shame. The twelve frost nights put spring on hold, though Blackthorn finally appeared in bloom a fortnight late at the end of the month. Trees almost all remained bare, but as their buds swelled their colours began a subtle change. And right at the end of the month someone burnt out a car at Sea Walls, a reminder that not everyone who visits the downs is there for pleasure.
13 April 2018 A week on the Downs Funderland have left. They cleared out with great efficiency, but must have had a pretty miserable three weeks, the wettest and coldest Easter holidays for some years. The free car parking area had to be closed off because of conditions, but there was only one day when parking demand outstripped supply, and visitors mounted the pavement on Roman Road and filled the grass area there- luckily without doing serious damage. And the Zoo emergency car park off Ladies Mile was not used once. The Downs are for People have issued a press release pointing out that the Zoo has not got a License from the Downs Committee, and there has thus been no agreement for the rent the Zoo is to pay for the use of the space. Last year they paid £7500 for the use of the site, which probably brings in at last £500,000 in parking charges. At a time when the Parks department budget is being cut this is absurd.
3 May 2018 A week on the Downs May 3 White Tree We got some publicity from repainting the Small-leaved Lime at the Whitetree roundabout. Radio Bristol carried it, and we sent pictures round the social media site. One or two cars honked in appreciation, I assume. Someone asked why the originator didn’t just put up a signpost, which is a good question but one that can’t be answered 250 years after the event, and one thing is certain- the tree is still painted and the sign post would have long gone. It is fun to do something just because it has been done hundreds of times before by our forebears, and it is a vivid illustration of two important ideas. One is that History Rules, OK? as a previous generation would have expressed it. The other is that human beings are creatures of habit, and this is constantly expressed in the rituals that govern our lives.
9 July 2018 A week on the Downs National Meadows Day. The Downs has one of the finest wildflower meadows in the land, and to celebrate this ten members set off at 10.00 on Saturday 7 July determined to find 80 native species in sixty minutes. We had tick-lists of what we hoped to find, though at the start we felt that the dried-up nature of the meadows would make our task impossible. We discovered almost at once that the tick list was out of date- having been created two weeks before, and we soon had over ten new species. We found most of the specialities- Yellow-wort, Centaury, Bee orchid, Thyme, and were surprised by Welted Thistle and Agrimony. The former scrub sites were very productive, and totting up when the hour came round I had 71 species, but Jon, who knows his grasses, had 90. In a normal year we could probably have found twenty more.
25 July 2018 A week on the Downs Dutch Elm Disease This summer is hotter and drier than the summer of 1976, which saw the peak of the Dutch Elm Disease killing the great Wych Elms that had been planted in 1880 on many of the Downs avenues. It is no surprise that this summer more and more of the young elm trees suckers, mostly some 20 years old, are turning brown and losing their leaves. There is certainly much more of it about than in any other year this century. The disease is a fungus which is carried by a beetle that lays its eggs under the bark of the Elms. The fungus destroys thin layer of tubes between the bark and the timber laid down the previous year. The impact so far is moderate.