Cowden Pound Pastures

Annual Report - 2009

By Terry Mullender

A return to something approaching a real winter, with the worst snow for some twenty years lying for around a week from 5th February. This was far worse in parts of South London with about a foot or so lingering for almost a fortnight in the Sutton, Epsom and Crystal Palace region. Promises of a 'barbecue summer' from the Met' Office proved a little optimistic as, after a scorching Wimbledon fortnight, front after front swept across us throughout July. This remained pretty much the pattern across the west although most of the precipitation missed our corner and a prolonged period of warm dry weather became established across us throughout the end of August, which lasted until the middle of October. All in all a return to more usual, albeit extended, summers weather. By late October the weather broke and we suffered a protracted run of gales and heavy rain although things remained fairly mild until a few weeks before Christmas when bitter northerly winds set in across us bringing heavy snow on 18th December. A slight respite of warmer air bought rain on 24th, which cleared away the snow. By New Year, however, we were back to Arctic conditions with thick snow again on the ground by early January 2010, with daytime temperatures failing to get above freezing and nighttime lows of around minus eight degrees centigrade.

I took a walk around with Martyn on the 4th January 2009 and replaced the heavy corrugated tins with lighter versions in the hope that this would stop, or reduce, the number of fatalities to slow worms in the coming season due to crush injuries. This was only partially successful. I fancy that further problems must have been due to children or other visitors to the reserve treading on the tins as the replacements are far too light, in themselves, to cause any great harm even if carelessly replaced or dropped. Sadly this was to be one of the last of my duties before resigning after some twelve years as Head Honorary Warden at this reserve as I no longer felt able to support the ongoing management regime imposed by KWT.

In my opinion the reserve has declined dramatically since 2004, a situation that can be precisely charted back to the retirement of Norman London at that time. My views on brush cutting of bramble over wet ground, in winter, and sheep grazing of this particular terrain are well known but have been consistently ignored. Briefly I feel that the cut segments of cane that are spilled on the way to the bonfire sites during late winter tasks become trodden in and root in the moist soil, exacerbating the situation. This is evidenced by the way in which bramble has spread progressively downhill from the upper banks, which should be confined but preserved for their value as refuge for the reptile population. Any impact on existing rootstock is virtually nil as cutting is undertaken during its dormant winter cycle. Conventional sheep grazing has made this situation worse, as they inevitably prefer to feed on the finer sward, reducing its quality by allowing coarser species to flourish and doing nothing to suppress the resurgent bramble.

As I have stated time and again, I would favour manual cutting by scythe in early summer, taking great care of course not to disturb any nesting birds, at the time when shoots are growing most vigorously, and then painting the freshly cut ends with an appropriate biodegradable herbicide. Although laborious this would eradicate the bulk of the bramble, where desired, in one operation while also addressing the problem of 'replanting' numerous chips and slivers of cane, as a scythe clears in one cut through the base, allowing the canes to be cleared whole without creating a myriad new cuttings. I am no fan of chemical treatments, particularly in this kind of environment, but feel that, at this stage, it would prove far less damaging than continuing with the current regime which is clearly failing badly. Before his retirement Norman did a splendid job of maintaining the reserve and always carried a container of bright green glyphosate which he used to paint the cut ends of any pernicious or unwanted plant species. The colour served to make it obvious what had or had not been treated and the glyphosate had no discernible impact other than where it was desired.

Obtaining the correct stock has been a problem in the past but Norman's therapy plus a late summer-early winter graze by Dexters or Longhorn cattle, historically, always gave the best results. The introduction of Hebridean sheep last year was a welcome experiment and they have certainly had a greater impact on the bramble than their more ordinary counterparts. They did at least seem to eat bramble leaves once all else had been devoured. The plan was to leave them in situ throughout this, and perhaps next, summer and the current poor state of the sward was to be expected in the short term. Ultimately they may well have the desired effect on the bramble over a long period but, judging by the results to date, I fear that this may take many years. While one or perhaps two years of such a regime should not adversely affect the rootstocks of the desirable indigenous perennial species too badly, neither will it have any profound effect upon the bramble on such a limited timescale. It may, however, impact heavily on any unprotected annual varieties, even in the short term.

Longer periods of this regime are in danger of eradicating the desirable sward along with the bramble. Other invasive species such as creeping, marsh, and spear thistle, rosebay willowherb, and bracken etc. are ignored by the sheep and remain unaffected, leaving them to spread vigorously across the reserve. I should also have liked to see more sensitive areas of sward and some rank forage areas for slow-worms, abutting the desirable upper bramble banks, protected by electric fences.

One blessing is that the sheep seem to avoid wetter patches and the strip following the spring at the bottom of NG2 and the larger area behind the trees at the bottom of NG3 on the other side of the stream appear to have been spared their attentions and remain as herb-rich oases. Hopefully these areas may serve as seed banks and will eventually allow our more desirable plant species to repopulate the depleted sward.

The sheep were moved from one compartment to the next throughout the year until given open access to NG2 and 3 in late autumn. This meant that by the time of a visit by KRAG on 9th May NG1 had been reduced to a close cropped lawn only to return to a wilderness of bracken, bramble, birch and willowherb by mid August when it was once again cut and grazed down. By this time the reserve had a somewhat weird aspect with marsh and spear thistles towering everywhere out of an otherwise Spartan landscape, with the herp tins 1-4 at the top north of NG2 all but unreachable for bramble and creeping thistle. The middle of this compartment was, however, showing some signs of recovery with a few devil's-bit scabious and betony appearing in the open sward. NG3 at this point was the last grazed and therefore still had a rather bare look. There was substantial damage to a good number of ant-hills in this section. With the herbage stripped bare there was nothing to bind the soil and prevent erosion or digging by green woodpeckers. There was also other severe damage, perhaps caused by foxes, badgers or the sheep themselves? Around 20% of the mounds were affected in this way.

It should perhaps go without saying that most species of flowering plant and subsequently insects were greatly reduced, while reptiles both here and nationally were not as evident as in recent years. Mammals and bird species seemed generally stable with goldfinches showing well on the seeding thistle heads and buzzards heard but not seen, on occasion, at the convent end. The amazing bonus this year was of Martyn's two water shrews discovered under herp'tins 3 and 8 on 21st September and another three, found by Martyn, individually, under tin No 7 on 24th October, tin 8 on 8th November and tin 2 on 15th, definitely a record. Roe deer also put in an appearance for the first time in several years at the top of NG2 on 1st September. Regrettably no attempt was made to preserve the area where Lyndsey and Susannah found a harvest mouse nest last year in NG1 and this was grazed flat. So no chance I'm afraid to further investigate this potential new species for the reserve.

With the sheep avoiding wet sections marsh marigolds held their own and even managed to spread a little. Alternate-leaved golden saxifrage did well in these patches while tormentil and eyebright were quite prolific in the open sward, perhaps due to their low growing profile or unpalatable nature? No daffodils and very few orchids, cowslips or primroses were to be seen in flower this year and in the patch in NG1 where a few years ago almost two hundred adder's-tongue ferns could be seen I only managed to find one solitary specimen. A brighter outcome was the discovery of a single milkwort beside the path in NG3, the first for several years. Another rather sad aspect was the poor numbers of crickets or grasshoppers to be heard even on sunny days, presumably due to, hopefully temporary, habitat loss.

With the reserve in such poor shape at the time of the KRAG visit on 9th May, and having managed to find just two grass snakes, one slow-worm and a common frog, we quickly migrated to the fields directly abutting the boundary to the west. These were ploughed in the early nineties but have recovered well. Here there is virtually no problem with bramble or other pest plant encroachment and only some slightly invasive birch scrub in the north-east corner which could be quickly pushed back with about one man hour of manual cutting. There is no management regime in place here, apart from random light grazing by ponies, yet the flora is flourishing and becoming progressively more diverse year on year, which, at least in part, would seem to support my stance on the established reserve. Orchids are coming back strongly with plenty of black knapweed and masses of lousewort (now virtually extinct on the reserve). Milkwort was also quite plentiful here and, with food and nectar plants in abundance, the moth and butterfly populations are thriving. In a stroll lasting only about half-an-hour we were able to find plenty of both grizzled and dingy skippers, small heath and several old mother Skipton moths, in direct contrast to the managed reserve lying only yards to the east where these species are now rare or virtually absent.

Following the outright purchase of the reserve by KWT an appeal was launched early in the year to raise �80,000 to cover the cost of this and to be put towards restoring the reserve to its former glory. Hopefully this will be successful but in my opinion the solution lies in different, perhaps even less rather than more intervention. With all that could have been attempted, such as pond creation and enhancement of the wetter areas of the reserve I was frankly amazed to discover, on a visit on 21st April, at both the timing and prioritization in clearing the shaw dividing NG1 and NG2. This, a prelude, presumably to creating a laid hedge, was halted (as a concession to nesting birds?) at an incomplete stage. A couple of cut stumps at the lower end of the run were protected from deer browsing by close corralling, using the brash produced. This is a technique, which I had read about in 'The Dormouse Monitor' and suggested as a means of protecting our hazel coppice, which urgently needs attention when the resources can be found to undertake a cyclical cutting of this vital habitat. At the time my suggestion was dismissed by management as ineffectual. Obviously a change of heart has lead to its adoption and it seems to have worked well in this limited application in protecting the emergent shoots, which grew well and suffered neither deer nor sheep damage throughout the growing season.

Regrettably this report has come to mark the end of a twenty six-year association, both as a voluntary warden with, and member of, The Kent Wildlife Trust. If permitted by KWT, I shall, however, continue to report on this site and to monitor its butterflies and reptiles for their respective conservation bodies: Butterfly Conservation and The Kent Reptile and Amphibian Group.