Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2001

By Terry Mullender

As the floods and gales which dominated the scene throughout last autumn and winter at last began to relinquish their grip so the spectre of foot and mouth disease reared its head across the nation, with the inevitable result that the reserve was closed to all, including myself, between the dates of February 26th and April 28th. Access was only then reinstated for those with sterilised wellies, and the fortunes of cattle were to haunt us to the end of the year.

We were "back in" by late April with a fairly average summer to follow, having no great extremes of climate save for October which proved to be the warmest ever recorded with temperatures topping 20c on several days. Monitoring of the reserve was not unduly affected, the only really adverse effects being the loss of a couple of work days, and to delay the installation of a further twenty dormouse boxes which were finally erected on May 24th, bringing the reserve total to fifty as required by the national monitoring scheme. The additional boxes were made, and kindly donated, by Martyn Davis who, presumably having not suffered enough, has also agreed to act as a warden. His efforts have been justified by our best year, so far, for recorded dormice, with a family of five in September and a further one (possibly Ma or, more probably going by the weight, a grown youngster) remaining in the same box for the October inspection to reward Martyn with an exceptional photo opportunity as I wrestled with the beast in the pouring rain.

Mammals generally seem to have enjoyed a pretty good year on the reserve, although wood mice and bank vole numbers seemed, by casual observation, to be a little down all the other regulars, particularly pigmy shrews and moles, appeared to have a bumper year. One particularly pleasing encounter involved a fallow deer which bounded straight at me out of the wood at the bottom of NG3, approaching to within twenty yards, before stopping to "eyeball" me for a full half minute and then "pogoing" back to cover on four stiff legs. She may well have had a fawn concealed but, whatever her reasons, I thought it best to make a discreet withdrawal and retreated in the opposite direction. Less welcome encounters were with brown rats, a first for the reserve, which were regularly found beneath our herp’ tins throughout the latter half of the year. I imagine they must always have been around but our paths just haven’t crossed before.

The five tit boxes around the site were second-hand and not of the best quality to start with. By last autumn it became clear that they would not survive the ravages of squirrel, woodpecker and rot for another season. I therefore manufactured five replacements of equally poor quality, but with metal plated apertures for better defence, and erected them during the winter in the same positions as the old ones. All appeared to be occupied in the early spring.

On May 10th I was surprised to notice movement in the owl box at the bottom of NG2. A closer look revealed three well grown tawny fledglings. These only revealed their presence once I had passed, they would then stick their heads out of the entrance hole to follow my progress as I continued my rounds. This breeding success is surprising as the box has never been cleared out and in other years has been occupied by squirrels. The grey faced watchers had all disappeared by May 24th , presumably having flown the nest.

Other bird life seems to be holding its own with greater spotted woodpeckers again nesting in the bottom woods of both NG2 and NG3. I must confess to being a generally poor observer of our avian friends at the pound as I am usually too engrossed in looking at plants, herp' monitoring, or counting butterflies. Exceptions include, this year, the occasion when a flock of seven green woodpeckers flew up as I rounded a corner and for a moment "threw me" completely as I have never seen so many together before. The other incident, which springs to mind, was the strange bird calling from cover and sounding something like a nightjar with bronchitis. This turned out to be a female cuckoo which I had never heard before.

Butterfly numbers were roughly stable, although clouded yellows were notably absent after last years irruption. So too was that other irruptive species the painted lady which last appeared en mass in 96. I haven’t seen a grizzled skipper, on the reserve, for two seasons and did not, this year, witness the end of season glut of commas on the bramble but both these omissions could, quite possibly, be due to the timing of my observations.

Insect life seems, on the whole, to be flourishing with notables being hornets, which were very much in evidence for several weeks from August 27th, and glow worms, which our neighbour at the north of the reserve tells me were present in good numbers on warm evenings throughout the summer.

Herp’ numbers appear stable. I did not record many slow worms but Martyn, who generally visits later in the day, regularly came across them. From this it would appear worthwhile staggering the time of observations in order to obtain a more accurate overall picture of our reptile population.

The plant life of the reserve seems to be flourishing. Milkwort and lousewort (despite efforts to reseed from stock in the adjoining field ) were again absent, but orchids are holding their own with twayblade and sneezewort showing improvement. Pignut seemed everywhere this year, and adder’s tongue positively exploded in the bottom of NG1 with up to a thousand specimens showing at the peak in early May.

Red bartsia was new to the pound this season along the path from our access. It is difficult to see how this has suddenly arrived, in substantial quantities, unless introduced, as it is an annual. Perhaps last winters torrential rainfall may have triggered germination of some long dormant seed?

Our problem plants, ragwort, bracken, and (to a lesser extent) marsh thistle, are, thanks to Norman, now well under control with the bracken greatly enfeebled and ragwort hard to find except in NG1 where a few rosettes should soon succumb to therapy in the spring.

Speaking of Norman, he has, once again, excelled himself, reconstructing fences across the stream with swinging bits to hit cattle on the head, and building a more permanent dam across the bottom of the spring at the north end of NG2. My poor mud wall, a little further down, is leaking at the base but still retaining a head on the pond. All this extra wet should enhance the already damp patch in that corner and benefit flora and fauna alike, with the prospect of greatly expanding the species list for the whole reserve. Some common darters were still using the area in early November.

Highslide JS
Eight longhorn cattle (six cows, two calves) arrived on 18th of September and began munching their way through the reserve...
Eight longhorn cattle...

Eight longhorn cattle (six cows, two calves) arrived on 18th of September and began munching their way through the reserve. They looked a little intimidating at first with their fearsome armaments but it soon became clear that the greatest threat came not from the head but the anus. Never have I known cattle to defecate with such a will. Cow-pats covered the ground as far as the eye could see and on several occasions I managed to slip on one and fall in another. By mid-November I felt that we had, had a few too many for a little too long. They were eventually scheduled for removal on 15th December but the grazier failed to collect them. Several other deadlines came and went with the reserve looking progressively more grazed out and the condition of the cattle declining dramatically until one eventually collapsed on the 29th and, despite the best efforts of a vet and all involved, died in the night of 30th - 31st. As I write the cows are still with us, their removal further frustrated by delays in obtaining a license from DEFRA to move them.

This situation must never be allowed to arise again. Tragedies apart, I feel that an intermittent regime of grazing would better suit the reserve, perhaps one year in three or maybe just four cattle for around two months annually so that some scruffy borders remain as refuge for invertebrates, etc.

It emerged in spring that the convent would be closing as a school and care home for the elderly. The last school visit (our only official visit this year) took place on the 22nd of June. The children seemed to enjoy savaging the countryside as usual but the teachers were a little morose to say the least. Quite what the implications of the closure will be remains a mystery. No information is forthcoming, although local rumour and experience suggest a housing development of some description. Short term this may benefit our cause if an opportunity arises, out of the confusion, to acquire the field south of NG1 and the area of coppiced woodland twixt the reserve and Stick Hill, which would, on the face of it, appear to provide some of the best dormouse habitat in the area. Long term I am very concerned as to the impact any change of use will have on the reserve.

One of the most positive aspects of the past year has been the interest and involvement of The Cowden Conservation Society, members of which attended several work parties and from among whom we eventually captured Martyn (his other half, Chris, has been invaluable in looking after our ailing cows). Another of their number, Mike Reid, may be able to help us by conducting a bat survey for the site as he is something of an expert in the field. Obviously the more local support and interest we can muster the better.

It has been an unsettled year with foot and mouth, the closure of the convent and the rather sad problems with grazing to end the year. However I am sure the reserve has suffered no long term harm and will be interested to see what turns up next summer.

Between us Martyn and I have attended the reserve on seventy occasions this year...