Cowden Pound Pastures - Background and History

Cowden Pound Pastures covers approximately fourteen acres of one side of a secluded valley within the grounds of St Andrews Convent about three miles south of Edenbridge in Kent. Its potential was first realised by Dave Hutton (West Kent Reserves Officer) during The Kent Wildlife Trusts ambitious project to survey and record all of the types, and locations, of habitat within the county.

At that time (’93-’94) the fields lying directly south of the reserve were of similar quality but were, sadly, lost to the plough before they could be registered as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). They have, however, recovered dramatically in the intervening period, under Set Aside, and it is hoped that agreement may be reached, at some point in the future, to incorporate them along with substantial areas of coppiced woodland abutting Stick Hill, into the reserve.

A Bit Of "History"

The site derives the name ’Pound’ from the old cattle pound which was once to be found close by The Queens Arms public house. This was, effectively, the precursor to car clamping, whereby vagrant cattle (in this case mainly straying from Holtye Common where many commoners were entitled to turn out their beasts for free grazing) would be rounded up, driven to the pound, and the owners required to pay a small fee for their return. The fine was often around one or two pence, hence lanes or roads leading to the local pound are often still easily identifiable from names such as ’Penny Lane’, ’Pound Street’, etc.

The person responsible for driving the cattle to the pound was known as ’The Streetdriver’, ’Pinder’, or,’Pound Keeper’. The office is first recorded, here, in 1821 when William Longley was appointed for a fee of 12/6d (proper money!) as ’going out and coming in Streetdriver’. That the office was identical with that of ’Pinder’ or ’Pound Keeper’ is born out by the role of Court Baron of the Manor of Lewisham, held in 1809 when James Longley was appointed Pound Keeper and a summons sent to him to come and be sworn in. It is possible that he was the father of our ’Streetdriver’ of 1821.

It was long stated that ’Mark Beech’ derived its name from a large beech tree which stood by the crossroads, and that cattle would be driven here for marking before being impounded. This is now thought to be erroneous, the name deriving from a far earlier specimen used as a landmark on the old drove road.

Site Description...

Cowden Pound Pastures is composed of a west facing valley wall and floor overlaying a substrate of green sand and gault clay. The bulk of the reserve is composed of unimproved neutral grassland surrounded by relict ancient woodland, with areas of marshy grassland and scrub. Through the valley floor runs a stream which is fed, particularly in winter, by a number of springs flowing down the valley wall. The reserve is divided into three compartments, each totally different from the others in character and requiring individual assessment and management.

The age of the site, or more accurately the length of time during which it has been subjected to management by man, is unknown. What is known is that this type of unimproved neutral grassland is almost invariably found on the site of cleared wildwood. That is, it results from the clearance of the original post glacial woodland which established after the last ice age, over twelve thousand years ago. The first period during which this is likely to have happened is the iron age, and the latest shortly after the Norman conquest when the process of assarting (clearance of woodland to leave an area of felled, or field as we call it today, surrounded by a shelter belt of woodland) became widespread. The latter seems, perhaps, the more likely, given the number of Norman knights (Talbot, Streatfield, etc) awarded parcels of land in the area at that time.

Whatever its origins it is a sad fact that around 97% of this type of habitat has been lost to the plough, development, or "so called" improvement since the second world war.

The Site Today...

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The most northerly compartment is notable for its large number of ant hills, engineered by many colonies of yellow meadow ant over a period of somewhere between one hundred and two thousand years, depending on which expert assessment you choose to believe...
The most northerly compartment...

Today, after clearing encroaching scrub from the most southerly compartment and pushing this, and bramble, back to a scalloped edge in the others, we are returning to traditional low level grazing as a means of maintaining the quality of the site. This may be carried out on an intermittent basis, as the fluctuating rabbit population, weather, etc, dictate. Currently the flora is improving year on year with devils bit scabious blooming in profusion in the late summer, while the early part of the growing season is dominated by both heath and common spotted orchids in the wetter parts. The flora supports a veritable plethora of invertebrates throughout the warmer months and the most northerly compartment is notable for its large number of ant hills, engineered by many colonies of yellow meadow ant over a period of somewhere between one hundred and two thousand years, depending on which expert assessment you choose to believe.

The site is stock fenced, not only to keep cattle in the grassland compartments but, just as essentially, to keep them out of the woodland where, far from enhancing the flora, they could do untold damage. The woodland consists of a good mix of native deciduous species with an understorey of coppiced hazel. It is this coppiced hazel which supports one of our best loved rarities, the dormouse (although a far larger portion of this habitat is found off the reserve bounding Stick Hill, it is linked to us by hedgerow corridors). The trees within the wood are not, as you may expect from the term "ancient woodland", giant specimens of extreme antiquity and it is possible, perhaps even probable, that the site has been clear felled many times during its history, but it has always grown back and has never, since the last ice age, been anything but a wood. Cutting down our native deciduous trees will not kill them, unless the root system is grubbed out, indeed it prolongs their life. The oldest living thing in these islands is probably a coppiced ash stool. Many of the plants found within the wood confirm its antiquity by their presence, as does the absence of any large amounts of ivy. Here too is found golden oak fungus once used to stain wood a natural blue-green for the production of a local specialist form of marquetry, known as Tunbridge ware.

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The hazel under storey within the wood will also, eventually, require cutting back (Coppicing) to a stump (Stool) in carefully selected sections (Cants/Compartments) in order to ensure a succession of nut bearing specimens for our dormouse population...
The hazel under storey within the wood...

Bounding the wood, particularly in the middle compartment, are great banks of bramble which serve as an auxiliary food source to hazel nuts, for dormice, and form an excellent habitat for grass snakes and slow-worms, indeed we are now a key site for these species in Kent. Bramble does, however, have a drawback in that it is particularly invasive and requires continual hacking back, or bramble bashing as it is called, during the winter months in order to maintain the status quo. Other species which require our intervention include, bracken, ragwort, and marsh thistle, but this work must be carried out in the summer while they are growing most strongly. The hazel under storey within the wood will also, eventually, require cutting back (Coppicing) to a stump (Stool) in carefully selected sections (Cants/Compartments) in order to ensure a succession of nut bearing specimens for our dormouse population.

Through the valley floor runs a stream which is, at present, an under researched part of our collective habitats and needs further expert investigation. We do know that its steep sides support a large population of golden saxifrage, together with many species of ferns and mosses, and that within the stream, freshwater shrimp, mayfly/caddis/stonefly, and alderfly larvae abound, while water crickets skate on its surface. At its margins the strange, almost arthritic, horses hair worm is to be found.

The flora and fauna of the reserve is monitored to make sure that our management regime is working correctly and is at least maintaining things on an even keel without being detrimental to any particular species or, perhaps, favouring another to the point where it becomes over prolific. For the most part this relies on the overall impression, backed by recorded data gained from regular observation, but the erection of nesting boxes for birds and dormice, and the strategic placing of sheets of corrugated iron as shelter for snakes and slow-worms, helps in providing focal points where we may reliably find what we are looking for.

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The one exception has been the creation of a small pond at the lower end of the spring running down the boundary of the middle and northern compartment to provide a breeding site for amphibians and promote associated insects such as dragonflies...
The one exception...

The Future...

Generally no dramatic changes, introductions, or improvements are envisaged for the site, the aim being simply to maintain and restore it to a traditional style of management suited to its inherent biodiversity. The one exception has been the creation of a small pond at the lower end of the spring running down the boundary of the middle and northern compartment to provide a breeding site for amphibians and promote associated insects such as dragonflies.