John Cleverdon is a Downs commoner and has the right to graze sheep. He still asserts those rights every five years – albeit symbolically with some sheep from Bristol University. Gerry Nichols has researched the history of grazing on the Downs, and Gordon Milward, retired Downs Ranger, remembers the sheep escaping.
Well the commoners are the surviving representatives I suppose, of the early landowners who enjoyed the privilege of grazing sheep on the Downs. But we just try to maintain the rights of the commoners as a tradition. Its something that has been going on for literally hundreds of years, I mean we’re not talking about the 1861 through to the present time, we’re talking about pre that period. I think the earliest record probably goes back to the 1600s.
The right to graze animals on common land is a property right. In the days when sheep were running on the Downs the property owners formed a group called the Downs commoners. If you look at the total of the property rights, there was several thousand sheep were allowed on the Downs and it wouldn’t support that many but this was a right that wasn’t exercised fully. Because of the number of owners, what they did was, they employed a shepherd, and the sheep were free to roam anywhere on the Downs, so there was no restrictions, as far as roads are concerned, the surrounding landowners would have to keep the hedges up to stop the animals coming in, but of course that meant that any young vegetation was nipped off, and one of the things you notice, if you look at photographs in the Victorian times, of the Downs, they look very different because there’s not so much tree growth , so that it was a much more open. But the other thing of course, is that animals grazing will keep the grass down, so there was no question of having to cut the grass and that continued until 1926, when there was an outbreak of a disease of sheep called sheep scab, and for health reasons, it was agreed that there would not be any sheep pastured on the Downs and once they went, they never came back again.
The grazing really finished in the late 1920s, it was at that stage that the commoners decided they were going to try and continue to exercise their rights. My father bought Trymwood Farm at the stage that it ceased to be a farm, that was in the late 1940s and we lived there as a family through until the early 70’s. My father was very interested in all this and he was , he excercised his rights to go to the commoners meeting and then when he became unable to attend in his own right I used to provide a taxi service to get him there, and eventually he said why don’t you come in and join us which is what I did. My particular rights are to be able to graze sheep on the Downs but the practicality of that is nobody can do that now indiscriminately. Every five years now with the help of Bristol university, because they have access to sheep, every five years we bring some sheep up onto the Downs, probably only half a dozen, and often get the local primary schools to come and join in and see the sheep up there. Inevitably today of course the sheep have to be penned in.
But what the commoners do these days, to keep their rights, they have to, they bring them up and graze them. and over the last four years, I believe, they’ve decided instead of grazing once every ten years, they would graze it every five years, just to show they’re still around. And the last time they grazed it was quite interesting cos some of them escaped. Because a cameraman wanted to get a close picture, they opened the gate and the sheep went over his head and were running round free for about thirty minutes. It was quite interesting to watch them chasing around after the sheep. But generally the commoners, their, their interest is in the Downs, in protecting the Downs and I always said it would be nice to see sheep again.
For me, and I think for a lot of people its important that traditions are maintained. It is only a token, we all accept that but we’ve had the children up there and they’ve just been interested to know and to see what happened, and hopefully if they can carry a few memories of that with them, they in the future will be the ones who go on and make sure that this tradition does continue