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Page last updated at 08:43 GMT, Tuesday, 29 June 2010 09:43 UK
Bristol children bring grazing sheep to Durdham Downs

Sheep in a field
A handful of sheep were released onto the Downs by 140 school children

School children in Bristol have evoked historic laws on Durdham Downs by bringing grazing sheep to the heart of the city.

More than 140 children from two Westbury-on-Trym schools, Elmlea Junior School and Badminton School, exercised their rights as "commoners" by letting livestock nibble some of the 122 acres of grass growing on the common land.

Local residents have long held the right to graze sheep on one of Bristol's most popular leisure spots, which is more usually frequented by runners, dog walkers and sports enthusiasts.

Their sheep grazing rights and those of a total 19 Durdham Downs Commoners, are part of a special 1861 Act of Parliament.

The Act also delivers unrestricted access for members of the public to the Clifton and Durdham Downs.

Even as long ago as 1861, the Act was designed to protect the area from encroachment by speculative local businesses, residents and property developers.

Shelley Bailey from the St Monica Trust, whose site at nearby Cote Lane comes with the right to graze 120 sheep, said: "It's interesting to realise that 200 years ago, people in Bristol shared some of the same concerns about developing open land that many of us do today.

"Many of our local predecessors were trying to fence off bits of common land for their own benefit and it was as late as 1848 that the Water Tower, now a local landmark, was built right in the middle of the Downs."

You can't put up a tent or booth without permission
You're not allowed to climb up any trees or railing there
Animals are not permitted to graze without permission of the Downs Committee
You are not allowed to play golf on the Downs
You can't light a fire on the Downs - or do anything 'likely to cause a fire'
You can't sell anything on the Downs without the permission of the committee

The Act of 1861 provided protection for the whole area as a place of public recreation, prohibiting damage to trees and plants, horse drawn wagons, bath chair hire, fortune tellers and stone throwing.

But it's only by grazing their sheep every 10 or 20 years that the Commoners make sure of an absolute right to keep all 122 acres as common land.

Historically hundreds of sheep were grazed on the Durdham and Clifton Downs and until 1925, when the growing threat from motor vehicles made life increasingly hazardous for the sheep, Durdham Downs Commoners employed a full time shepherd.

On Tuesday, the children of Elmlea and Badminton Schools grazed just ten sheep but warned any potential developers that, if their rights are challenged, they could let loose as many as 1,885.

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