Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2008

By Terry Mullender

A year characterized by its grey dampness and lack of sunshine rather than any exceptional extremes apart from on April sixth when 4-5 inches of snow laid throughout the day and temperatures failed to climb above 2ºC. In all a return to our normal British weather, with a protracted cold snap leading up to Christmas and New Year. Sadly a return to more typical weather meant, as I predicted last year, a return of vigorous growth in the bramble which has plagued us over the last several seasons. This coupled with a change of management regime together with tragedy and dwindling support from our local volunteers left us unable to cope with the situation and by late May much of the reserve was inaccessible.

The decision to move responsibility for the day-to-day maintenance work at Cowden Pound from Tyland Barn to the team at Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve was, on the face of it, a sound and sensible logistical move. However, the tragic death of one of the paid wardens and the resignation of another meant that staffing problems left poor Susanna to cope virtually alone until Paul transferred from Tyland Barn later in the year.

The 26 sheep threatened, against my wishes, last year finally arrived on 10th January. As ever these were a complete failure. They immediately set about grazing the fine sward in NG3 while ignoring all of the coarser areas completely. By the end of January most of the paths in their patch were too badly poached to be walkable. The flock was then moved to NG2 in mid February.

Despite efforts by Susanna to soldier on the reserve was in a dreadful state by the end of May with our southernmost field (NG1) completely submerged beneath a mix of rosebay willow-herb, bracken, marsh thistle and bramble with a strong growth of birch scrub emerging through it.

It soon became extremely difficult to reach our 'herp' tins, despite my efforts to maintain paths open with a hedge trimmer. My mood fell further when I was informed that another flock of 21 sheep would be arriving on 9th July but lifted a little to discover that these were not the usual white fluffy morons but a Hebredean variety similar to Soays.

For around a month they had little impact other than a few problems with tree barking (this became severe as the herbage was denuded at the end of the year) and the accumulation of droppings due to their habit of standing, as a flock, for long periods in one spot. However, after a while it became evident that they were beginning to browse the bramble leaves, and eventually they succeeded in stripping some of the sparser areas. Results on the more dense pillows were far less convincing, with only the outer periphery being laid bare, as the sheep could not reach further in.

Overall results were mixed. Given that the site is once again cleared through the coming winter, and that a sufficiently large flock of this variety is installed on the site, by the time that the bramble canes are emerging but have not hardened, they may be effective in controlling the problem. Once the growth becomes vigorous and passes the 'salad tip' phase they will be of little benefit, as they will turn to easier, more attractive, grazing and, as this year, will make little progress with the larger, denser areas. Perhaps the addition of a couple of Dexters, or similar, if available, would be beneficial.

The third stage in the bramble saga began in early autumn when Susanna rallied the Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve's band of volunteers and they descended en mass for several 'Task Days' which successfully retrieved the reserve, with the sheep remaining in situ in to the new year.

Susanna has now agreed to review the management plan for the reserve as a matter of urgency. The old one expired in 2005 and, while I am no fan of such plans, as events invariably seem to overtake them, I welcome this as a positive step providing that there is provision for input from all parties involved. I am assured that an effective grazing regime will be a priority even if it means sacrificing our flora for a season or two. This would cause little long-term damage and may serve to strengthen desirable rootstock.

The progressively rank, overgrown, nature of the reserve, due mainly to the failure (for whatever reason) to establish an effective, sustainable, grazing regime over the past few years has meant that it's biodiversity has been adversely affected. The loss of grassland species, as the quality of the sward has deteriorated, is the most obvious aspect of this with milkwort, lousewort and grizzled skipper (presumably due to the great reduction in wild strawberry) now long gone from the reserve but still well represented in the adjacent fields which have received no management beyond fairly consistent low-level horse grazing and remain pretty much bramble free.

This year orchid numbers were well down and we had the poorest showing of devil's-bit scabious that I can remember. In what part this was due to the condition of the sward and how much was due to the weather is less clear. Last year we enjoyed a boom in orchids, with the foul weather, and the sward in little better fettle. Cinquefoil, perversely, had a marvelous season this year, showing everywhere that open grassland still remained, no matter how rank.

Despite the lack of sunshine and subdued temperatures our herps have never been better. Presumably the extra cover afforded by all of the extra bramble suits them just fine. We had record counts of both grass snakes and slow-worms with plenty of evidence that both species are breeding vigorously. Sadly we also had five slow-worms killed by crush injuries beneath the tins this year. This must either have come about by people standing on the tins, or dropping them, having taken a look beneath. Fatalities occurred predominately beneath the thicker, heavier tins and I will make it a priority to get these replaced during the winter.

Mammal numbers appeared to be fairly stable in 2008 although deer recordings seem to have dropped over the past two years with roe being entirely absent. Both species are still strongly represented in the direct local. Perhaps our rank habitat no longer suits them either?

Dormice were also, once again, not to be found on the reserve. Mike and Julie were not even able to find evidence of their continued presence through gnawed hazelnut leavings as they had previously managed. Quite why they should have gone is not clear. They were never plentiful. Perhaps our hazel coppice has become too sparse or old to support them. It may be worth trying to monitor the nut yield. I cannot think that our bramble problem could adversely have affected them. Indeed this is one instance where it might prove a positive benefit.

On the issue of coppice: continual deer browsing of the emergent shoots has thwarted our previous attempts by killing the stools. An article in 'The Dormouse Monitor' suggests that stacking the brash around the cut stumps, and perhaps wiring it in, acts as an effective barrier while the initial phases of regeneration take place. This, together with cutting at waist height, which is also easier, seems well worth a try to me.

One surprise was my finding a water shrew beneath tin two, on a hot day, on 15th July. The shock was not so much in finding it as where it was, at the top of the middle compartment some hundred yards from the stream with any downhill springs having long dried up for the summer. Nevertheless I am confident of what I saw.

Another surprise discovery was that of a harvest mouse nest, close by the entrance gate from the convent land to NG1, by Lyndsey and Susanna on one of the workdays. It may be worthwhile to leave the herbage to grow long in this corner and try to encourage them by erecting some tennis balls with access holes to act as nests.

Once again, despite my promises last year to be more active, I failed to spend any meaningful time bird watching in 2008. Thankfully Lyndsey has been far more diligent and managed to record blue tit, great tit, great spotted and green woodpecker, robin, blackbird, wren, treecreeper, goldcrest, marsh tit, nuthatch, siskin, jay, magpie and rook this season. Lyndsey and Martyn also managed to capture a chap called Lintum Hopkins from one of the Sevenoaks based work parties who might be keen to get involved on the birdy front next year. For my part I can only add buzzard, blackcap and the tawny owl from our badger watching night to the list.

Grey skies and subdued weather throughout the summer, together with the rank state of the sward have meant another poor year for insects, most notably our butterflies.

One bright spot was the visit of the ever brilliant Laurence Clemons on 25th August. Laurence informs me that this time of year is always relatively poor for insects but, despite this, he managed to record 120 species from 8 orders. Most notable among these he swept a single female of the rare tephretid Acinia corniculata (Zetterstedt). Apparently the larvae develop in the seed heads of black knapweed and Laurence attributes its solitary status to the fact that most heads had been eaten by the sheep! This is one rare critter, with only 28 other 10km squares providing, mostly old, records. It is known from only 4 other sites in Kent.

Laurence took a sample of seed heads from other parts of the reserve to see if he could raise some further specimens.

Apart from Mr Clemons, Irene Folliot visited us on 26th April for a crash course in dormouse monitoring. I referred her to Alan Ford thereafter as he was more likely to be able to show her actual dormice, which we are sadly lacking these days.

Disappointingly the visit by Hever Horticultural Society was attended by only one member on the evening of 21st May. Despite this we did manage to find a minotaur beetle stomping around which is always quite impressive to anyone not familiar with our more spectacular native coleoptera.

A badger watch on 14th June was well attended, with Irene Folliot making a return trip plus boyfriend and many of the usual faces. Sadly the badgers were having none of it and failed to put in an appearance. This was compensated for, to a degree, by some excellent deer watching and cameo roles by a tawny owl and a stoat.

On the 21st June I spent the morning in the company of John Madden, who runs a patch over at Lingfield and was keen to visit our neck of the woods to see what we get up to this side of the border. I explained that things were far from great at present but he was nevertheless impressed and returned at the end of the year (with my blessing) to take some seed in order to enrich his home site.

The myth and rumour concerning the sale and development of St. Andrews Convent, including the reserve land, came to a head in the spring when sale boards were erected on Stick Hill. It emerged in the autumn that KWT had been successful in their bid to purchase the pastures, which form our existing site. Sadly, however, they were unable to afford the surrounding fields and although these are unlikely to be developed in the foreseeable future conjecture continues as to the fate of the convent buildings and the land in their direct proximity. The impact that any development may have on the surrounding habitat, mainly as a result of the increased population in the direct vicinity that a housing complex would inevitably bring, remains a matter of some debate.

I do not keep records for visits made by Lyndsey, Mike and Julie but when added to the eighty or so made to Cowden Pound Pastures made by myself and Martyn these must add up to well in excess of a hundred, or one in three days with warden cover.

This has been my twenty fifth year as a warden with KWT, first as assistant to the great Roy Coles at Bough Beech Resevoir and latterly here at Cowden. It has also, regrettably, been the most depressing. Changes in the latter part of 2008 have lifted my spirits a little and hopefully the situation will continue to improve into the coming year.