Bristolians agree that parks have increasingly been a lifeline for our wellbeing during lockdown. This has been keenly felt at the iconic Ashton Court Estate. This winter, the estate has experienced record numbers of visitors for the time of year, when the usually low visitor numbers would allow the ecology of the site to rest and recuperate. By calling an Ecological Emergency, we recognised that the wellbeing of nature is vital to the health of the city and must be protected. That is why over the coming spring, visitors to Ashton Court Estate can expect their trip to be affected by essential conservation measures.
The estate is populated by breeding skylarks, a small brown bird which marks its territory with a spectacular flight display. They make their nests amongst the grass on the plateau at the top of the estate, near the Clifton Lodge car park. Nationally, skylark numbers have dropped by over 60% in the last 40 years. Due to pressure from increasing visitor numbers and dogs roaming off the lead, the skylark population at the estate has declined in recent years. Without urgent action, this species could be lost. To conserve this species locally they need to remain undisturbed at this time of year whilst they are beginning to nest.
The plateau area is also home to an important population of green-winged orchids, as well as hundreds of common spotted orchids. The green-winged orchids begin to flower from late April, whilst the common spotted orchids flower from the start of June. However, over the course of the winter and early spring the orchids are in danger of being damaged by the trampling and compaction of the soil from walkers. The orchids have been put at higher risk over lockdown by increased visitor numbers on the estate.
Visitors to Ashton Court Estate will no doubt be fans of the red deer park, and keenly aware of its closure for the health of the deer since November. In order for the deer park to reopen, we cannot continue to put the wildlife at risk for the sake of our own enjoyment. During the birthing season, which runs from May to July, it is especially vital to keep to the footpaths and keep dogs on leads. It’s important not to touch, feed, or photograph the deer at close range; doing this teaches them to approach humans, which is dangerous for all visitors.
To protect these species for future generations, the Parks & Green Spaces Department has roped off sections of the plateau as temporary conservation sites. Visitors are being asked to stick to the paths and keep their dogs on a short lead around the plateau. The red deer park will remain closed for now and reopening will be reviewed after lockdown when footfall lessens.
The situation at Ashton Court is just one example of the fine balance we have to get in protecting our city’s biodiversity as we face an ecological emergency, while also keeping our parks open for all to enjoy, as they were intended. We can all show our appreciation for this beloved green space by playing our part in protecting its unique ecology for years to come.