Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2006

By Terry Mullender

A rather cooler winter than those of recent years, with the latest spring for around a decade: underlined by four inches of snow, which layed briefly on the morning of 10th April. It was, however, the overall dryness which made this winter exceptional, a theme which continued until August, making this, together with last year, the longest period of drought for around seventy years.

Summer did not truly arrive until July when temperatures soared into the thirties and the parched landscape became reminiscent of 1976. A somewhat grey August produced a little rain around the middle weeks before the second summer arrived, producing record breaking temperatures throughout September and October, eventually fading, thankfully, into a rather wet, if mild, autumn.

Although undoubtedly restricted, to a degree, by the drought conditions, bramble and other pest species (including bracken, which is also staging a comeback) have increased their grip on the reserve. NG1 now has around 80% (70% in 05) cover and was declared 'unfavourable', by English Nature, during their August visit, as was the case when KWT took the reserve over, some ten years ago. This is where we came in! NG2 now has 40% (20% in 05) and NG3 70% (40% in 05). We are losing the reserve, and soon our SSSI status, unless a way is found to reverse this situation.

Those better qualified than myself advise that cutting back through the winter period and summer grazing should reduce the problem. To this end two horses were installed at the end of August (they were removed as things became sodden under foot in the autumn. Exactly when? I do not know, as I was not informed). I hope that they are right but personally feel that we can only realistically hope to redress the problem by eradicating root stock, probably, if reluctantly, by chemical means. I desperately hope that I am wrong in this and that more subtle methods will prevail. Blindly continuing with the current management regime is not an option!

Where not smothered out, our more desirable flora seems to be at least holding it's own. This was, notably, a splendid year for cowslips and primroses, not only on the reserve but everywhere locally. Here the cowslips were exceptional, showing a substantial increase on previous years. Orchids too enjoyed another bumper year and are slowly increasing both their range and numbers, while opposite leaved golden saxifrage staged a minor recovery at it's old site beside the stream. Some clearance in this area would pay dividends.

With the exception of sneezewort, which suffered from bramble cover and yellow rattle, which continues it's march along the valley floor in the middle compartment, other key species, such as devil's bit scabious, remained stable.

Mammal numbers were generally stable with plenty of deer (both roe and fallow) rabbits, voles, etc to be seen on most visits. The addition of three new wardens (more of which later), effectively doubling our happy throng, hopefully means that this order will be rather better monitored in the future.

Lyndsey Rule has been surveying for water shrews throughout the summer, while Mike and Julie Reed joined me in inspecting dormouse boxes for the last two sessions of the season and were able to point out the presence of yellow-necked mice, which I had previously overlooked and mistakenly identified as wood mice.

Dormice were again absent from our boxes but hazel nut evidence, in the form of freshly gnawed examples, definitely confirms their continued presence. This is particularly exciting as Mike found good numbers of these around our higher numbered boxes where we have no positive previous records.

Hopefully a bird watcher will emerge from among our new conscripts, as birds, I am afraid, have, historically, been virtually ignored at this site due to lack of time caused by more pressing commitments. This year is no exception, although the overall perception is that our feathered friends are holding their own. Such scant observation is clearly unsatisfactory and I will try to remedy the situation in future.

Herps seem to have recovered from their low point a couple of years back, and although not at a peak they are certainly holding their own. Large grass snakes, up to nearly four feet in length, were the most striking feature this year, with the discovery of many yearling frogs inhabiting the wet area at the far bottom of NG2, while inspecting dormouse boxes with Mike and Julie, not only raising our perception of this species at Cowden Pound but also, perhaps, answering the conundrum of how the site supports so many.

Jim Rye, the grazier who's horses are currently refining the sward on the reserve, and hopefully doing battle with the bramble, also has stock out on the surrounding fields, which were to have formed the extension to the reserve (more later), tells me that he has seen adders there. I shall investigate further. Certainly they are present within the direct vicinity of the reserve, judging from the reports that I receive. All from folk who know an adder from a grass snake.

Finally on this topic, the corrugated sheet 'tins', which we use to monitor reptiles, are becoming very rusted-out and 'past their best'. They were, anyway, rather large for purpose, having formed the side of an old privy in a past life. I shall contact KRAG and see if I can secure some standard sheets as replacements.

As with other orders, insects are at least holding their own. Hornets were, once again, very prevalent throughout the summer months, with butterflies showing well and the bonus of only the second recording for white admiral, with a single specimen to be seen late in the season, on 21st September, by the convent end stile.

Surprisingly, no peacocks were recorded at Cowden this year and I haven't seen a holly blue around for a long time.

An irruption of hummingbird hawkmoths meant that these magnificent insects were to be seen, on several occasions, feeding on bramble flowers, around the reserve.

Thanks are due to Paul Glanfield for restoring our ageing stiles, which were becoming somewhat dangerous, and also for adding a few new ones, which means that rather less of my anatomy will be left suspended on the barbed-wire, when inspecting dormouse boxes, than has been the case over the past year or so. He also tells me that funds are now available to replace the stock-proof fencing, which is becoming a little wobbly.

Visits this year included the annual St Andrew's Convent fete, which this year produced only a few interested individuals, and two trips organised by Lynne Flower, which were well attended. The first on 6th July involved The Leigh Women's Institute who enjoyed a pleasant evening stroll after earlier showers cleared to give a lovely evening. The second visit on 21st July was attended by The Tonbridge Conservation Society who, in the cool of the evening, after a blistering day, were able to observe hummingbird hawkmoths feeding on bramble flowers at the top of NG1. Several of us later adjourned to The Kentish Horse for a few pints, to provide the perfect end to the perfect day, before a heavy storm struck in the night to give our first real rainfall for many weeks.

Apart from our failure to come to grips with the bramble problem. the biggest disappointment of the year came with the news that KWT had, after all, failed to secure a lease on the surrounding fields, as outlined in my 2005 report. To have been successful they would have had to stock-proof fence the whole area, which, on the length of lease offered, was simply not viable. Instead the land was let out for grazing, on a two year lease, to Jim Rye, which is certainly not the worst of options. As previously mentioned Jim has now stationed a couple of his stock on the reserve, in an attempt, among other things, to control bramble.

Perhaps more alarming is news that the convent itself is to be redeveloped. What the implications may be for us remains to be seen. Certainly there will be considerable disturbance, close at hand, with substantial building and conversion work scheduled to take place. Beyond this there are, of course, worries about the behaviour/intrusion of our, eventual, new neighbours, although hopefully there might also be a positive aspect to this if they are educated to appreciate the resource on their doorstep. We shall see.

On a brighter note: three new wardens have been captured for service. This doubles our current number and, if we are fortunate enough to eventually secure the extra land, they will at least give us some chance to cope with the situation and run things in a competent manner. All were taken without a struggle after being foolish enough to express interest in the area, and no undue cruelty or drugged darts were used at any time.

Mike and Julie Reed come to us with a lifetimes experience in the educational side of the wildlife industry and have agreed to help with/take over dormouse monitoring at the site, while Lyndsey Rule, our water shrew stalker, has spent her somewhat shorter life working for KMBRC and currently KWT, where she is engaged with land assessment and management. A warm welcome to them all.

Martyn and myself have visited the site on seventy nine occasions this year and while I've not been counting the new guys, they must account for at least another twenty trips.