Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2007

By Terry Mullender

The year has been very much defined by the weather and the return of foot and mouth disease, in August, as a result of what appears to have been an accidental release from the government's research facility at Purbright (and again in September). At only some thirty miles distant this was rather too close for comfort. With restrictions in place on cattle transportation for most of the latter third of the year, and outbreaks of blue tongue also arriving for the first time. This put paid to any plans for grazing until early December.

I was informed of the imminent arrival of thirty sheep on 5th of December but at time of writing they are still to put in an appearance. The wrong stock at the wrong time, in my view. A couple of month's autumn grazing, by around six Dexters, when necessary, gives the best result, although I realise that this was not an option this year. The impact of deer and rabbit grazing through the winter should also not be ignored.

Another mild winter (daffodils were in full bloom on Christmas day at Mark Beech) was marked by severe gales on 18th January, which bought down a fair amount of debris across the reserve and one tree in the vicinity of the stream crossing in NG2. We also had a little snow during the first and last weeks of February but by early April unnaturally warm and dry conditions became established which by the end of the month were beginning to give concern as grass everywhere began to turn an unseasonable parched brown. We need not have worried, on 6th May a depression moved in from the Atlantic which was to set the scene for most of the summer (on 28th, after a few settled days of around 26c a week earlier, we managed a maximum temperature of only 8c). Worse was to come, with unprecedented summer rainfall, across much of the nation, resulting in devastating floods across the middle regions of the country. Things did not improve greatly until early August when we enjoyed three fine, settled, weeks, ending with a vile week of rain and gales before more traditional September weather arrived. The middle weeks of December bought the most protracted spell of frosty mornings for several years before reverting to mild damp and windy conditions for the end of the year.

One positive side to the appalling summer was that the prevailing conditions did not appear to suit bramble at all. This was, thankfully, less rampant than in recent years, possibly as a result of ongoing management but mainly, I fancy, as a result of the weather which favoured the sward and resulted, for once, in the grass out-competing the bramble and, to a degree, smothering it out. There was also evidence of a kind of rust disease afflicting the bramble. This was particularly in evidence around the entrance car-park at the north end of the reserve. It was also quite noticeable that the area, which Paul cut the other year in NG3 during high summer, has not regenerated with any great vigor. If I knew for sure what has restricted the bramble this year I would bottle some for next season.

Speaking of the car park: this was enlarged and a cattle pen installed by early September. The neighbours, both adjacent to this entrance and adjoining the drive, objected to the construction using galvanized steel gates. It appears that wooden substitutes of sufficient size are not available and a compromise has now been reached by spraying the offending structures with matt-black paint.

Our stock proof fencing, which has served well for nearly ten years, had become rather wobbly and in need of replacement. Work on this commenced around the start of May, which ended our only grazing this year (Jim had a solitary colt on the reserve from 4th April to 4th May) and, no doubt hampered by the poor weather, continued until early July. During this period the site became something of a building site with barbed wire, etc, strewn across paths and stakes lying in piles across the reserve. While I accept that such disruption is an inevitable part of major ongoing maintenance operations, this did result in my having to cancel the year's only scheduled visit to the reserve.

St Andrew's Convent had been booked in for a couple of 'Nature Walk's' as part of their annual fete on June 16th. This normally consists of a couple of parties of around a dozen inappropriately attired adults and half a dozen children. Given the state of the reserve, at that time, and the 'Health and Safety' implications attendant to it, I thought it wise, on this occasion, to call things off.

Generally the flora at the reserve has continued to flourish, with all the regulars at least holding their own in an exceptionally wet year, despite the obvious competition from the more vigorous grasses, etc. The damp conditions also favoured the orchids, which continue to increase their range across the reserve. Another pleasant surprise was that opposite leafed golden-saxifrage is staging a comeback, doubtless assisted by this year's weather. It was particularly in evidence along the bottom edge of NG2 and throughout the wet flushes. It was in this last area that Mike Reed found a specimen of peppered saxifrage growing beside the stream. Although not new to Cowden Pound Pastures (previously recorded by Joyce Pitt) it is certainly not common and it is good to see that it is still present. A small clump of white campion, which appeared near to the entrance stile in NG1, is a first at the reserve for this species.

Speaking of Mike: he and Julie have, this year, taken over from myself with monitoring of the dormouse boxes at the reserve. Disappointingly, once more, we have failed to come up with the goods although other evidence, such as appropriately gnawed hazel nuts, point to their continued presence. At some point we really must address the problem of a regular coppicing program if their habitat is to be maintained. Also, many of the other species boxes around the reserve are now starting to show their age and need replacement. I will try to have a look at this in the coming year, unless someone else would like a job?

It was also Mike and Julie who confirmed my previous glimpse of a suspected water shrew in 2003 with a proof positive sighting beneath herps tin No 8 on 15th August. This after all Lyndsey's hard work to come up with the goods. No justice in this game.

Most other mammal species appeared fairly stable during 2007.

In late October Mike, Julie and myself became aware of several strange features at the bottom of NG3. These consisted of several shallow hollows of around three feet across and a foot deep. Having discounted the original impression of wild-boar, Mike and Julie feel these were dug by the action of fallow stags fore feet while jousting during the rut. I tend to feel that this would have resulted more widespread disruption of the surrounding herbage, rather than a concentrated pit, and that they were created by stags purposely digging wallows in the mud for cosmetic usage. Perhaps a little of each? Interesting whatever the origins.

I made a final effort, on my last visit to the reserve this year, in counting mole hills for The Peoples Trust For Endangered Species, as part of their 'Molewatch'. I was surprised to find that we had apx 30 in NG1, 40 in NG2 and 200+ in NG3. In each case these fresh, crumbly, examples were matched by an equal number of 'weathered' but clearly visible specimens.

Lyndsey put up a woodcock, while doing the rounds, back in February and it was while taking a stroll with her, to brush up on dormouse surveying technique, that we were lucky enough to see a buzzard soaring overhead, for some minutes, on 21st April. On the previous Sunday (15th April) I had four over my house, only about a mile away, for over an hour. This was the last that I saw of buzzards this year, although one could be heard mewing at the reserve on 27th April. Green woodpeckers continue to be numerous, with sightings on almost every visit but once again our avian fauna has been rather a neglected area. To be fair Lyndsey has been making an effort with bird watching and, aside from the woodcock, reported regular flocks of goldfinch. I will make a point of trying to join with her and concentrate some effort on this order next year.

Somewhat surprisingly, given the weather, it was a bumper year for herps at Cowden, although poor nationally, with recordings back to the previous peak years of 2000, 2001 and 2002. Perhaps this is not that amazing after all when one considers that the favoured food source of our two predominant species is frogs and slugs, both of which must have found the seasons deluge very much to their liking. Large grass snakes were again a feature but all sizes were in evidence right down to six-inch long hatchlings.

I must thank Rick Hodges from KRAG for kindly supplying us with some new tins/refugea of a more standard size to replace our ageing whole, and double, corrugated sheets. These were a product of the simple utilization of an ancient outdoor privy, which had been demolished when we first took over the site. We decided to leave those that were still sound (mainly as we were too lazy to move them at the time) in situe and used the new ones in tandem with these, while the badly rusted examples were removed. What rapidly became apparent was that the herps preferred the larger tins and used these to the exclusion of the replacements wherever they had a choice. Perhaps size does matter!

It will come as no great shock to hear that this was our worst season ever for butterflies. This was pretty general across the range of insect species, and while I may be accused of jumping to conclusions, I think that most fair minded observers will agree that the overriding contributory factor has been the weather. Despite this I managed to add to our insect list, with the longhorn beetle: stenurella melanura, and the sawfly: zarea fasciata.

Although very much a struggling amateur, in this field, a fungi foray in the autumn, armed with digital camera and numerous field guides, extended our list for this order with two new wax-caps: hygrocybe chlorophana and hygrocybe coccineocrenata, the glistening ink-cap: cuprinus micaceus, the trumpet agaric: clitocybe geoptera and under the trees: russula cavipes.

Despite perfect weather for molluscs, I was even more surprised to be able to add to this list with a single specimen of the brown-lipped snail, which I have never before seen on the reserve.

Despite the torrential rainfall our poor old pond and wet area failed to retain a head of water in 2007 and, if we wish to persevere with this feature, we shall need to re-think and perhaps enlarge this area in the future. Personally I think it would be worth the effort in view of the benefits in added diversity. All offers welcome.

Overall a disappointing year, mainly of course due to the weather. I must also confess to having put in less time than usual due to a succession of distractions from ailing and injured family members. As my old school reports say, " Could do better", which I shall endeavor to do next year.

Finally, I notice that Jim Rye does not appear to be using the surrounding fields for grazing anymore. If he has given this up perhaps we should consider another approach to the convent, with a view to adding these to the reserve. I have heard no more concerning redevelopment at St Andrew's.

In all Martyn and I have visited the reserve on seventy one occasions, backed up by numerous other visits by Lyndsey, Mike and Julie.