Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2002

By Terry Mullender

The year opened with our unfortunate cattle still awaiting removal. Several deadlines came and went until finally the grazier, arrived out of the blue on 10th January and spirited them off, back to Suffolk. Unfortunately foot and mouth restrictions were still in force and his DEFRA license had expired, he was soon brought to book and remanded in custody. A rather unsavoury ending to a somewhat unhappy interlude.

After a fairly nondescript winter we were treated to a truly gorgeous spring with a virtual drought throughout March and April. The rains came in early May and did not abate until August. While I have known heavier rainfall I have never known summer rain to be so consistent and prolonged as this year, the ground remained waterlogged, as if in winter, to the end of June. Things again turned in early September and we enjoyed an Indian summer through to mid October, with drought conditions once again prevailing until the inevitable autumn rain arrived along with a chilly spell to end the month. Things remained wet until after Christmas although no notably cold weather arrived until into the new year.

While, hopefully, no lasting damage was done to the reserve by last years over grazing, invertebrates were notably down on previous seasons. Knapweed was almost totally absent from its usual stronghold in NG3 as were the small skippers which can normally be found in large numbers feeding upon it. Butterfly numbers were generally down this year as was the number of adders tongue ferns occupying the site at the bottom of NG1 which became particularly badly poached towards the end of the cattle’s occupancy. It would be unfair to blame these reductions solely on over grazing as the appalling summer could be equally, or indeed wholly, to blame. The recovery of the flora was also delayed by a mini drought throughout March and April of this year. Orchid numbers appeared to be at least stable while devils bit was back to normal, after last years reduction, with a number of white mutations showing (a condition also seen in marsh thistle and betony) on the reserve. Eyebright was noticeably increased and lousewort, at last, made a return with a single specimen spotted by Norman London at the bottom of NG2 presumably as a result of my re-seeding from the adjacent field during previous seasons. The arrival of yellow rattle a few paces further north in the same location was a bit more of a puzzle as was the appearance of red bartsia in NG3 a couple of years back. These are annuals which have not been consciously introduced and I can only assume that they have arrived via the dung of herbivores, either deer or our cattle. However they got here we now have all three of these semi parasitic cousins on the reserve. Another first, this year, was hard sowthistle with a single specimen showing at the top of NG3 by the access gate.

Elder, at the top corner of NG2 next to NG1, was afflicted with some kind of rust disease through middle to late summer which resulted in substantial wilting and leaf loss, however, by the autumn it seemed to have almost disappeared. I will keep an eye on things during the coming season to see if there is any reoccurrence.

Among our pest species, or more accurately those likely to become pests if not managed, bracken seems to be under control as does ragwort, although a few more specimens of the latter were in evidence towards the end of the year than in previous seasons, with marsh thistle at an acceptable level. Rosebay willowherb is proliferating across the reserve and will need some attention in the coming season. Perhaps as a result of this increase in its food plant, elephant hawkmoths were seen for the first time this year on the reserve. Other invertebrate firsts for 02 include, common blue damselfly, large red damselfly, banded agrion, pond skater, whirly gig beetle, great diving beetle, agabus bypustulatus (water beetle) and water mite, all of which are attributable to the establishment of the wet area and the pond.

Reptile numbers were roughly stable in 2002 although it was noticeable, in the early season that the best producing "tins" of previous years, in areas where bramble had been cut back last year, gave poor results until re-growth was well underway. It is difficult to see why Cowden Pound should play host to such a large population of grass snakes as it appears far from their ideal habitat but it does look as if the peripheral bramble banks with their underlying burrows are at least a part of the attraction, providing refugea and hibernacula in abundance.

Dormouse results were almost identical with last years. An inspection on 19th July revealed one lactating female with at least four furred but still blind young. Unfortunately the adult escaped up the tree and, not wishing to disturb the young further, I replaced the lid and decided to leave well alone. Strangely the extra twenty boxes donated by Martyn Davis, although superbly constructed, remained unused even by woodmice. They are sited in particularly dense woodland to the west of the reserve and because of this sheltered location may need protracted weathering before coming "on line". The majority of the nut evidence, this year, occurred around the stile half way up the boundary fence twixt NG1 and NG2. We should, therefore, exercise extreme sensitivity when coppicing, or hedge-laying in this region. Best advice is that all corridor hedges should be kept to at least three, and preferably four, metres in height.

Generally mammal numbers corresponded roughly to those recorded last year, with both common and pigmy shrew showing well beneath the "herp tins". The rabbit population locally has suffered badly from myxomatosis over the past summer and several stricken individuals were seen around the site.

The mystery of the apparent roe lecs, seen over the past few seasons at the bottom of the reserve, and queries as to whether the known population of fallow deer could also be exhibiting this behaviour, were at last solved when Martyn became the first to sight roe deer back in February, with two individuals recorded then and further sightings later in the year. Another new species record for the reserve, although one assumes they have always been present.

While bird watching is not my strong point, it was interesting to see a sparrowhawk, in early September, travel along the top hedge of NG1 and take an unsuspecting robin from one of the isolated trees as he happily chipped the bounds of what he thought was his territory. House martins were to be seen over the reserve as late as October 9th and greater spotted woodpeckers again enjoyed breeding success in the bottom woods close by the badger sett.

External visitors were at an all time low this year with only those attending St Andrews open day on 1st June availing themselves of our facility. Fortunately the weather was kind to us and around ten individuals enjoyed a stroll in the sunshine. One of those who attended was Rick Aherne who appeared happy to spill the beans regarding future development at the convent. It seems that the older buildings are to be retained while the newer "sixties block" will be demolished and redeveloped as flats, in a style more in keeping with those retained. The overall floor area should be less than of those currently in existence.

With the upheaval at the convent comes the opportunity to extend Cowden Pound Pastures to include the field lying directly to the south, and the coppiced woodland abutting Stick Hill to the east. I have extolled the virtues of the field on many previous occasions and will only reinforce my view here that we should grab it while we can. It should not require too much in the way of management beyond low level grazing and would be a great asset. The case for the wood is less clear cut. Any objection would come from our limited resources to manage it. My initial investigations, based on a few winter forays, indicate that it is probably fairly ancient. Such indicator species as can be seen at this time of year, together with the absence of any large quantities of ivy, support this as does the presence of substantial negative lynchet along the western boundary. Within the wood there is evidence of woodbank. This is however not massive, as in the case of older examples, and as such embankments became smaller towards the end of the main period of their construction around 1270 it would be a good guess (and nothing more) that this wood, in its current style of management, is contemporary with the reserve, forming part of an early Norman assart. There is also a pond lying close to the western boundary about halfway along its length. This is approximately twenty feet in diameter and, at present, ephemeral in nature, holding water only in winter. The situation could, perhaps, be improved by clearing back the surrounding trees, given that the manpower is available of course. The main case for acquiring the wood lies in its potential for dormouse habitat but a substantial amount of work would be needed to restore the under-storey and it should be noted that a good percentage of the existing stools are of chestnut not hazel.

With regard to ongoing management of Cowden Pound Pastures, my views regarding sheep grazing and my ire at their reportedly imminent introduction are well known. They may well benefit the flora of NG1 but I still feel they would be nothing but trouble in the other compartments due to, foot rot, entanglement with bramble, and their ability to drown in any minimal amount of water. It should also be remembered that Cowden is never un-grazed, apart from rabbits, between five and twelve fallow deer regularly feed here together with an indeterminate number of our newly sighted roe’s. These are, however, selective feeders, as are sheep, seeking only the more delicate morsels from the sward while disregarding its coarser elements. You may have noticed that I do not like sheep and remain convinced that a low level bovine or equine grazing regime would be the most beneficial to the reserve. Of course I remain open to informed debate concerning our fluffy friends!

Coppicing of the surrounding woodland/shaws is essential if we are to retain our dormouse population but we must be careful to get both the sequence and the period of rotation right if we are not either to starve them, or physically push them out. I notice that the few stools cut last winter have failed to regenerate during this years growing season and appear to have died, I am a little concerned at this.

Our limited population, and the geography of our woodland, seems to indicate that our dormice come to us along narrow hedgerow corridors from richer sources of hazel coppice bordering Stick Hill. The sequence of cutting must, therefore, be carefully calculated so as not to sever any such already tenuous links. As I understand it the nut baring term of hazel coppice is roughly from the seventh year to between thirty and fifty years. This apparently lengthy rotation should fit well with our limited resources and it would seem that we have a few years leeway before we need to panic.

The careful management of the banks of bramble on the upper slopes of the reserve by constraining them by rotational cutting back, just far enough to maintain the status quo. should ensure that we retain our healthy population of grass snakes. Perhaps the isolated "pillows" could be a little more harshly treated, once cleared, by painting cut ends with an appropriate herbicide to eliminate regrowth, otherwise it seems our volunteers will be doomed to spend virtually every winter task day hacking at the briar in perpetuity. If this need were eliminated we could use their labour to tackle other management requirements and perhaps make winter work days a little more varied and interesting.

At time of writing there is much speculation regarding big cats on the loose both nationally and locally. Well informed friends and neighbours swear to have seen large black cats in the area and a local deer stalker tells me he sees them regularly and finds the remains of their kills in the woods around us. The black bit puzzles me a little as this indicates black leopards and accepting that this is the case surely there should be some spotty ones out there as well! About ten years ago we had a spate, locally, of sheep being found with the heads bitten clean off, and one morning, as I set off for work in the pitch black, a most terrifying growl greeted me as I went to get into my van. I saw nothing but it was definitely the growl of something large and feline rather than canine, it was not coming from your average tabby!

Martyn and I have visited the reserve, this year, on a total of seventy three occasions and neither of us has been eaten yet!