Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2005

By Terry Mullender

After a very dry and mild winter, with only a couple of frosty mornings, we were plunged into arctic conditions at the end of February. The worst week was at the beginning of March with local schools closed by snowfalls of up to four or five inches and night-time temperatures down to -9ºC. The severe weather persisted into the following week but by the weekend of 19/3 we were able to enjoy a barbeque in my garden watching brimstone butterflies and bees going about their business, indeed it was so balmy that we were able to sit out late into the evening in only shirt sleeves. Hard frosts, however, returned for the second week in May before we settled down for summer with temperatures reaching 31ºC before the end of the month.

According to the old rhyme, "Oak before ash, we're in for a splash! Ash before oak, we're in for a soak!" This was certainly true this year with oak out a full 4-6 weeks in advance of ash and a drought to follow which rivalled that of '76 although with rather less sunshine. The stream through the valley floor dried up and the reserve began to look dry and scorched until the 25/7 when a wet week heralded the arrival of six dexters on 28/7 without any consultation with myself (AGAIN). The previous years herd had only departed on 10/1 and I would have preferred to have rested the sward this year, given the dryness and recent grazing, in any case I would have liked to defer their arrival until the beginning of September, when the devils-bit scabious had finished flowering, as grazing emergent flower heads is a good way of weakening the root stock. In the event the cattle were penned in NG3 until the bulk of the bloom was over and here seemed not to touch the devils-bit to any great degree. Perhaps then, I am grumbling unnecessarily but a little more communication would not do any harm on major issues such as grazing. I think my views have been well aired in the past and I am currently at peace with all at KWT! The beasts departed at the second attempt on 19/12.

At the end of March Richard Carr carried out some coppice work at the bottom of NG2 (mainly alder) and greatly opened up the area which quickly filled with ferns making a quite dramatic display until bramble began to assert itself later in the year. Richard was also responsible for the creation of our new hard-standing/car-park, at the north end, which was completed by mid-April. This has greatly increased our vehicular access to the reserve.

More work is needed on the hardware of the site with most stiles in a state of collapse. The one leading to the badger sett is particularly urgent as we need it to reach some of our dormouse boxes and it is currently quite dangerous. These were in a bad way last year and with our modern neurotic fear of litigation present a very real risk hazard. Paul Glanfield has promised replacements in due course. It would be nice to have one extra, to provide access to the dormouse boxes in the top shaw by the gate between NG1 and 2. The boundary fences are, hopefully, now stock-proof following Paul=s renovation work at the time of the cattle introduction.

After our old Owl/Kestrel box finally fell down a while back Martyn Davis has constructed two new ones (to his usual cabinet makers standards) which we duly erected in mid-February. No results yet, but it's early days. Our old one hosted a brood of tawny owls which made it all seem worthwhile.

The night of 20th January was notable, at least for the people in 'Walnut Tree Cottage', as at 2 am the big old beech tree, which ever since my acquaintance with the reserve has been home to a huge bracket fungus and featured on the front of the pamphlet produced by Sister Dianne, fell into their garden with a mighty crash. My old chum Kevin Agate later handled the clear up and, hopefully, left them smiling. This marks our first definite extinction on the reserve as I fear it was our only specimen on the site (original reserve that is).

Among our pest plants, bracken, creeping-thistle, marsh-thistle and ragwort seem to be under control with rosebay willow-herb making a break for it in NG1 (which including bramble, silver birch, etc, has reverted to some 70% scrub cover).

Bramble is now the big concern across all three compartments, as it spreads through the open grassland, making walking in some areas nigh on impossible, with 15-20% of NG2 affected and 30-40% of NG3. The big peripheral banks (which we want to retain as refuge for our herps) seem a little healthier this year, although they still have a tendency to die at the rear and root forward, effectively rolling down the hill with ash and birch breaking through as ever. It is this proliferation of bramble in open areas which, if not addressed urgently, will result in the loss of diversity across the reserve. I feel that a new approach to control must be found if we are to restore the status-quo, as current measures (Paul and Co did a great job of clearing in NG2 during late autumn) are simply not working. The present system of endless bramble-bashing task days throughout the winter is, in my view (and that of Martyn Davis), only serving to exacerbate the situation. By cutting with a brush-cutter over wet ground we are effectively planting hundreds of new canes, with no lasting control of rootstock, as we drag sheets full of cuttings to our bonfire sites, inevitably spilling clippings all the way and treading them in on the return trip. This seems not only to be pointless from a control perspective but serves to alienate many of our volunteers who soon catch on that a 'Task Day' is always bramble bashing and rapidly lose interest.

I do not pretend to know all, or perhaps any, of the answers but feel that we must trial a few alternatives if we are to have any hope of being successful. Root removal is probably a non starter but The Royal Horticultural Society claims that painting the leaves with a glyphosate solution works well and, being a systemic herbicide, offers the chance of a long term solution ( I have used this method in a domestic situation with good results). Although labour intensive this system is surely less wearing than continual cutting and will, if we are persistent, give a better degree of long-term control? Perhaps the agent could be applied using a wick-wipe in the more open ant-hill free parts, or even sprayed in the more densely affected parts, with little risk to our more valued flora. This would at least offer some hope of controlling the root stock. Another idea might be to cut in the summer and leave the canes to die of dryness before attempting to move them. This system appears to have had a degree of success where Paul cut some paths through it in the summer. Dave Hutton has suggested the use of browsing, rather than grazing, stock such as Soay sheep or goats.

No method is perfect and all have glaring drawbacks but the situation is becoming desperate and some form of dramatic action is required if the site is not to be swamped and our SSSI status lost. Interestingly in the new parts of the extended reserve, where no active management has been undertaken, there is very little problem with bramble encroachment, particularly through the open sward. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us somewhere!

Mammal numbers across the reserve appear to be fairly stable with rabbits in evidence on almost every visit although they are still afflicted with the dreadful myxomatosis. I guess this is endemic in most populations and simply flares up when conditions favour it. This, I should say, has been a more or less average year.

Deer were again to be seen on many occasions with roe still predominating over fallow, whereas in the early years fallow were the only species to visit us. Whether this is part of a national migration brought about by the effects of global warming (do we believe Bellamy or Oddy and co?) I can only guess at, elsewhere in the area fallow are still very much in the majority.

Dormice are our only furry friends who do not seem to be doing too well with none recorded again this year (a poor one nationally). Hopefully they will return but it must be remembered that numbers were always very low and such as are around may well have nested outside of our boxes given the predominantly dry conditions which prevailed throughout the bulk of this years summer. It may be worth a good look at the integrity of the corridors linking the reserve to the more promising habitat bordering Stick Hill this winter.

One interesting observation, on 2/8, was a stoat lurking beneath one of the herp tins. What struck me was the sheer muscularity of the beast, something that you do not generally appreciate with the normal fleeting glimpse. Its back rippled with a sheet of solid muscle doubtless developed by dragging off unfortunate rabbits to a sticky end in the undergrowth!

Badgers generally, I would imagine, had a hard time of it for the first half of the summer with the protracted drought making digging for, and finding, worms very hard work. Our residents doubtless faired better than most as they have substantial wet areas close at hand which stayed damp throughout. There was a great deal of activity around the sett at the end of May with much excavation evidenced by the great mounds of fresh earth to be seen at several entrances.

Birds, to my shame, again flitted past largely unobserved. We must find an ornithologist to take a few walks around as I am sure a lot is passing us by. Someone with head up rather than head down looking at herps, flora and invertebrates. That said the rather obvious green woodpeckers presented in their usual large numbers and the overall impression was that our avian friends were holding their own. My personal observations of buzzard in the vicinity were nil this year (heard but never actually seen on the reserve), others, however, tell me that they were sighted regularly round and about.

Our reptiles had a slightly better year, with numbers continuing to recover from their heat induced crash at the end of 2003. Slow-worms were well back to previous levels, grass snakes less so, with specimens still fairly thin on the ground as compared to their glory years of 2000, 2001 and 2002. One distinct difference between the two species was that slow worms seemed to be unaffected by our late cold snap and showed up, under the tins, at roughly the usual time (showing in better than average numbers throughout April) whereas grass snakes were a full month late in putting in an appearance. The preferred body temperatures give a clue as to why this may be. Slow worms try to regulate their core temperature to apx 23c (the lowest for any British reptile) while grass snakes aim for around 29ºC. This does not explain, of course, why adders (not found at Cowden) with a preferred core temperature of 33ºC (the highest of our native reptiles) are often the first on parade nationally.

The common toad, which graced us with its 'post breeding season' presence last year, once again visited in the late spring again lodging under the bottom left corner of tin No6 for around a month. It will be interesting to see if it turns up again next year. I am convinced it is the same individual.

A bumble bee was seen on the wing on 4/2 with an ambient temperature of only 8ºC and a brimstone put in an appearance on 16/3, only a week after snow and night frosts took us to -9ºC.

Highslide JS
Scorpion Flies (a newly recorded order)...
Scorpion Flies...

Firsts for the reserve, among our invertebrates this year, include a white legged damselfly on 23/6 and short-winged cone-heads seen regularly from 27/8. Visits by Laurence Clemons and Tony Russell-Smith with the Arachnid Recording Society greatly increased our invertebrate lists (many recorded from the new areas): Crustacea +2, Millipedes +2, Spiders +48, Sawflies +24, Beetles +53, Bugs +19, Crickets +1, Scorpion Flies (a newly recorded order) +2, Moths +2, Damselflies +1 and Flies + well over 120. I record everything in simple list form but the far more detailed original submissions from our visiting experts are available on request, many of which include a grid reference for each individual recording and national status where possible.

Given the nature of our terrain it is no surprise that we are well blessed with crickets and grasshoppers, less probable (given the rather dry aspect) is the variety of dragonflies and damselflies which regularly visit us, indeed our efforts to create an environment for them has, this year, come to nought with Normans dam leaking badly and my amateur effort fairing little better, doubtless both suffering from cracking due to the drought. The short-winged cone-head is also more typical of a wetter environment, favouring wet grassland and reed-bed of our southern coastal regions. Perhaps further evidence of global warming? Other orthoptera appeared stable with Roesel's bush-cricket showing an increase on previous years.

Hornets were again very much in evidence on the reserve and throughout the locality. They appear to be increasing dramatically year-on-year, quite noticeably outnumbering the common wasp this season. On 2/9 I was watching one going idly about its business in NG2 when I saw it grab a bluebottle by the scruff of the neck and carry it off: presumably fodder for the nest.

Butterflies had a reasonable time of it although some sessions were disappointing given the weather. A solitary clouded yellow put in an appearance on 7/9 (last years specimen seen on 30/10 was joint latest sighting for Kent) and a single meadow brown was still on the wing at the end of the first week of October! Areas of the extended reserve look far better, at least for some species, than the existing. More of this later.

Our flora suffered both from drought and bramble in 2005 with the open grassland looking quite desiccated from late spring until the end of August. The adverse conditions did little to stop the insidious progress of the bramble through the open sward or to prevent more general scrub from smothering much of NG1. Adders tongue was noticeably less but still well in evidence in its usual location. Cowslips lost ground to bramble in its old haunts but fresh clumps were to be found in some new areas. Sneezewort also suffered from bramble encroachment while opposite leaved golden saxifrage was hard to find beside the stream due to increased shading. All was not bad news, however, our resident native daffodils (Lent lilies) emerged in the latter half of March and seem to be increasing year on year. Orchids too are more than holding their own and are extending their range across the reserve with yellow rattle doing, perhaps, a little too well beside the path at the bottom of NG2. Ultimately this may require some form of control.

Devil's bit scabious, one of our key species, was well up to strength in its main stronghold in the middle of NG2. The stands in NG3 too were up to normal numbers and appeared to suffer little from the cattle penned there for the duration of its bloom.

New species among our flora, this year, were crosswort and hedge bedstraw, appearing respectively at the beginning and end of June. Their appearance was something of a conundrum in our mildly acidic soil as both have a preference for a rather more chalky substrate. I can only imagine that both came to Cowden from Kemsing, transported from the chalk downland in the dung of last years dexters, and managed to find a niche in a couple of our more limey patches.

No report would be complete without mention of the newly adopted extension to the reserve which came under our management in spring this year as part of our ongoing arrangement with St Andrews Convent. Extension is probably an understatement as it increases the area previously under management by around sevenfold. Unfortunately Kent Wildlife Trust have only been able to secure an initial lease of eighteen months, which means that stock fencing (around one and a half miles need replacing) and extensive species monitoring are not at present viable. Hopefully ongoing negotiations will result in a longer agreement being forthcoming.

Given the above circumstances, and availability of time, my investigations to date have been restricted to a number of extended forays into the new area rather than any more detailed study. What is very apparent is that this is potentially a very valuable acquisition which will greatly increase the diversity of the reserve. Some parts have an almost heath-like character with significant patches of gorse. Dave tells me that the triangular field to the south west was a mass of lousewort at the end of May as was the north end of the field directly abutting the southern end of the old reserve (we must decide a system of nomenclature for the new part of the reserve, such as we use in the old , i.e. NG1, NG2, etc: so that we know which field we are talking about without lengthy description).

Much of the extension is of SNCI quality already and has the potential of an upgrade to SSSI. On a walk around the field to the west of the existing on 25/5 I quickly counted up to 60 small heath (at which point I gave up counting). Only fifty yards away in the old reserve they are fairly scarce, with a count of more than two on any given occasion being quite unusual. On another walk in the same field on 14/7 I found it to be alive with six spot Burnet moths which are also scarce on the old reserve and grizzled skippers were seen on every visit during the early summer. These were particularly bright specimens and at first I took them to be chequered skippers, until Dave pointed out that they are extinct in this part of Britain.

One very noticeable feature of the new fields is that there is little problem with bramble encroachment. Hardly any has, so far, got a foothold in the open grassland and yet there has been no management, not even stock grazing, in some parts for many years. I am not suggesting that we abandon all efforts in the old reserve but we clearly need a new philosophy. Perhaps we need to intellectualise less and behave more like our early Norman counterparts who, although uninterested in conservation, created this landscape using simple, low intensity, methods of husbandry to serve their needs.

As well as those previously mentioned other visits this year included around twenty members of the public from St Andrews open day on 21/5. This turned out to be a vile day with frequent heavy showers and near gale force winds. Needless to say there was very little to be seen apart from the plant life which did little to keep the kids happy as they only ever want to see snakes! Thankfully lifting our eight tins saved the day with a couple of obliging bank voles, a common toad and a solitary slow-worm providing the interest. The following weekend Dave organised a walk around the extension. Sadly this was very poorly attended, with only Laurence Clemons and Dave turning up (even I had another engagement ).

It has been an interesting year at Cowden Pound Pastures which has seen the reserve, as observable from the rear of St Andrews Convent, extended to the horizon in all directions. It has become obvious to myself, Martyn and Chris during our combined 96 visits this year that in order to adequately cover our new patch we shall all need to give up the day job!

If we keep only one New Year Resolution in 2006 it must be to win our battle with the bramble on the old reserve.