Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2003

By Terry Mullender

After yet another "run-of-the-mill" winter things brightened up in mid-March and, with the exception of a brief wet spell as June ran into July, stayed that way until late October. While this was good news for lawn mowing contractors, like myself and Martyn, holiday makers, and sun worshippers in general, it was certainly not good news for the reserve, which was as dry as dust for most of the summer, experiencing its worst year for flora, reptiles, and anything reliant on moisture at the site, since my association with it.

While weather was, overwhelmingly, the dominant factor, there were other major contributors:-

1. Grazing regime.

The reserve looked at its best in 2000 following grazing by five dexters from late August to early November in the previous year. 2001-02 saw the disastrous session with the longhorns, which would have been fine had they been removed by the end of November 01, and this year saw the introduction of sheep from mid winter until early spring.

My views regarding sheep are well known and I do not intend to reopen the subject here, except to say that while, in the event, my fears for casualties among the beasts were unfounded, apart from several cases of lameness, I do not feel that any advantage was gained from their introduction. They served only to replicate the type of graze that the site gets from its population of rabbits and deer. Rank areas were ignored while the finer sword became over-grazed.

We must get the regime right if the reserve is to flourish and, to my un-tutored eye, this means a light graze of around two months, in early autumn, by about half a dozen coarse feeding bovines, i.e. dexters, longhorns, or highland cattle, and this perhaps only in alternate years.

2. Bonfire sites.

Norman London drew my attention to the potential problem of phosphate run off from the ash produced when burning large quantities of brash, etc. Attempts to move the waste, produced by work parties, downhill for burning (using an ATC), were thwarted, at least in NG3, by the number of anthills present.

As moving large volumes of brash seems to be impracticable, given the labour generally available, I wonder if it would be possible, at least on the higher slopes, to stack the waste and leave it to rot down, as Norman has done with this years bracken clearance? This is a surprisingly rapid process, which has worked well at Bough Beech, and it would provide another niche for invertebrates rather than creating a problem.

3. Creeping thistle.

This is, perhaps, the most worrying development, long term, to afflict the reserve this year. Presumably a result of overgrazing, and perhaps boosted by run off from accumulated dung where last years sheep took shelter under the trees at the top of the eastern valley slopes, creeping thistle has exploded onto the site during this summer. The whole top half of the northen end of NG3 is now badly affected, while the top northen corner of NG2 is completely choked, resulting in the loss of much important flora. I imagine the problem of creeping thistle is, in truth, the cumulative product of all those mentioned before and its resolution will not be easy. If not tackled, however, it has the potential to swamp out much of the site and must be urgently addressed.

Flora in general has suffered badly this year, although Norman thinks our orchids have spread and increased even in areas previously devoid of them. The spectacular flush of devils bit scabious simply did not appear, instead a few straggly specimens struggled to survive on the upper slopes (damper parts were less badly affected and root stocks should recover in subsequent years). Down too were tormentil, centaury, and adders-tongue, while betony was almost non existent, swamped out by the forest of creeping thistle sweeping down from the high slopes. One casualty attributable directly to sheep grazing was golden saxifrage which was almost absent from the airier sections of stream bank long before the drought had time to take effect.

The bramble at the top of NG2 needs not only to be spared the brushcutter this winter but is in dire need of positive restorative therapy if it is to survive. Scrub has pushed up through it and creeping thistle has swamped the remainder completely. We must act quickly if its benefits to the site as a refuge for reptiles and possible auxilliary food source for our dormouse population are to be retained.

A further problem with maintaining the bramble banks is that any clearance to the rear of the clumps does not appear to regenerate while that on the downhill side is only too happy to reach out and root. The effect is that the major patches of bramble, while maintaining their overall volume, are moving downhill towards the valley floor leaving clear grassland behind them. Norman has suggested clearing by section in order to try and re-establish new growth on the higher ground. This is probably worth a try but we need to be cautious that we do not loose the lot! I wonder if we could clear out the scrub at the back and replant with cuttings, to the rear, in the spring when the most vigorous shoots appear.

There has been some good news on the flora front in that two new patches of sneezewort were discovered this year, one about halfway down NG3 on the left as one looks down from the top, and another in the wet area at the bottom of NG2. Milkwort also made a return, with a single specimen alongside the diagonal footpath down to the stream in NG3. It is of course quite possible, with this level of presence (it only ever presented in very small numbers) that it has never been absent but merely overlooked.

Lousewort showed up in two places this year, during June, and thankfully knapweed also recovered to its former level, in the top half of NG3, this year after failing badly in 2002. There is a distinct line across NG3 as one walks downhill. Above this line the vegetation is much coarser than that below it. I have no idea why this should be so. Soil structure perhaps?

Pest species continue to thrive but Norman, as ever, seems to have bracken, ragwort, and rosebay willowherb (much less a problem than last year, thanks to Norman), well under control. Bramble, except where we want it of course, is a little more troublesome and appears to be spreading through the grass, in several areas, making walking difficult in parts. Quite what can be done to tackle this I don’t know but feel that some attempt at control must be taken soon to prevent the problem from affecting larger areas of the reserve.

In the early part of the year Martyn Davis made valiant attempts at coppicing the small wood at the bottom of NG1 and part of the top shaw in NG2, ably assisted by Chris, for the most part. I myself managed to stay out of the picture despite Martyn’s assurances (prior to starting) that we’d knock the lot off inside two days. I’ve heard these tales before!!!

It shows the extent of deer grazing at the pound in that none of the coppice work undertaken over the last two years has managed to regenerate since it was cut, and this raises questions as to whether we should continue with any further clearance until a solution is found. The top shaw must be treated with particular sensitivity as it is only here that we have, so far, found dormice. We need not only to preserve this, but to look at ways of improving corridors to (and from) other suitable areas of habitat on the reserve.

The fortunes of our invertebrates this year depended, to a large extent, on their reliance on wet patches or damp sward. Water dwelling species disappeared as the pond and stream rapidly dried out, and even land molluscs were nowhere to be seen after late spring. Presumably our slugs and snails either went into a state of aestivation, sought refuge under logs, etc, or perished. Under the circumstances I postponed my intended survey of this order, at the reserve, until next year.

Considering the sad state of our flora, throughout the summer, butterflies did surprisingly well, with small skipper back and approaching normal levels as knapweed recovered. We had our first recording of a grizzled skipper for several years and a single clouded yellow blessed us with its presence through August and September. Ian Ferguson spent a couple of nights moth trapping and produced a spectacular list of species for our records. My efforts in producing a list of resident arachnids should, perhaps, be viewed with a little suspicion as I can’t stand the things, and it took a major effort of willpower, not to mention courage, for me to get close enough to correctly identify them. Happier days were spent recording hymenoptera (hornets were much in evidence this year) and orthoptera. Among our more notable resident crickets were Roesel’s bush cricket and long-winged cone-head, a species which is apparently extending its range due to the effects of global warming. One particularly interesting incident, to myself at least, was the discovery of four or five sexton beetles dealing with a dead slow worm beneath one of the herp’ tins. True to their name they had it completely buried inside three days.

Mammals seemed to fare quite well in general although rabbits were all but absent this year, their numbers having fallen dramatically in the locality due to an outbreak of myxomatosis. Logic would dictate that badgers must have had a bad year, although ours may have been better placed than other populations in having worm rich damp areas (which stayed moist throughout) adjacent. Dormice seemed to do quite well, in a nationally poor year for recording, with numbers up to parr, even a little increased if we are to count the dead specimen found in an otherwise empty box during the final inspection of the year. Deer numbers were well up this year. Interestingly roe seem to have displaced fallow on the reserve, although fallow are still a common sight in the direct vicinity. Neighbours reported large numbers (twenty plus) grazing in all parts of the reserve, and a large area of our wet patch at the bottom of NG2 became quite flattened where they layed up during the hotter periods, presumably deriving some benefit from the cooling effect of the damp vegetation.

During a work day on 21st September I wandered off alone to resurrect a fallen dormouse box near to the gate between NG2 and NG3 next to the stream on the valley floor. I was alone, and as I leapt the stream I put up a large mammal, which sanity dictates must have been a deer. I had only a fleeting glimpse of the beast as it bolted uphill, and this partly obscured by foliage, but my lasting impression was of a big cat, not a puma for it was too short and stocky, but more like a lynx. Whatever I saw the gait was feline, not that of a deer. I reported my sighting to the rest of the work party who found it highly amusing and wondered if I’d had time to get to the pub and back during my absence!

Birds, I am afraid, are a rather poorly observed resource, due in the main to our commitment to monitoring of other orders. We could desperately do with assistance from a keen local birder if any are forthcoming. One notable exception to our neglect, this year, came in April when, over a period of several weeks, I am positive that I heard the mewing of a buzzard on several occasions. Sadly I was unable to confirm this with a visual contact.

Goldcrests were plentiful, during February, around the stream and wrens were a common sight throughout the year, as of course were our ubiquitous green woodpeckers.

It was our reptiles which suffered most this year, with numbers around thirty percent down until the end of July when recorded numbers fell catastrophically. Only single specimens of grass snake were to be found on any excursion until the end of the season, and this mostly appears to have been the same tenacious individual. The dryness of the year must account for a good proportion of this fall in numbers, particularly slow worms which may have gone into a state of aestivation as their prey dried up (literally!). It was notable, however, even early in the season that the tins sited at the edge of the major bramble bank at the top north corner of NG2 were failing to produce. This had always been the prime recording site for grass snakes with a marked reduction last year as the quality of the bramble cover went into decline. We must restore this area, and carefully manage our other bramble banks, if our herps’ are to thrive. Dr Lee Brady and other members of KRAG will be visiting in the spring to give further advice, and to replace our rather variable collection of tins with eight rather smaller versions of standard size.

We had only one organised visit this year from "The Cowden Conservation Society" on June 1st with The Sisters at the convent joining in. We had a very pleasant evening rambling round the reserve, and ended up in the lovely convent garden. It was particularly interesting to talk to Sister May, who had a remarkable understanding of wildlife in the area and her recollection, among other things, of adders in the vicinity, which she says were present at Cowden Pound Pastures until around 1994-5.

In general this has been a very disappointing year and I can only hope that things will improve over the next twelve months.

Between, us Martyn and I have visited the reserve on eighty one separate occasions...