Cowden Pound Pastures

General Trends

Rabbit populations fluctuate year on year, being exceeding high in 1996, they seemed to suffer a crash in 1997 and then recovered steadily until 2002 when myxomatosis again knocked their numbers back. Their fortunes seem to affect the overall perception of certain flora, such as orchids, cowslip, etc, which have their flower heads eaten in ratio to the rabbits present. Closer observation, however, suggests that rootstock remains strong and may even benefit from this cyclical grazing.

Sneezewort, milkwort and lousewort were not noticed in 1999 but sneezewort had returned in 2000, perhaps due to cattle grazing and winter management, i.e bramble clearance. Notably no twayblades or grizzled skippers were observed in 2000, but new species for the reserve included, common toad, slow-worm, grey wagtail, clouded yellow and a horses hair worm, discovered in the under researched bottom stream.

Still no return for milkwort or lousewort in 2001 but twayblade were observed in better number than ever. The reserve seemed, in the main, stable this year with pigmy shrew, moles, and fallow deer well in evidence. Pignut had a good year and adders tongue had around a thousand specimens showing in the bottom of NG1 during May, its best ever to date.

A single specimen of lousewort made a return to the reserve in 2002 and roe deer were recorded for the first time on a couple of occasions. Knapweed had all but disappeared this year, presumably due to last years overgrazing. As the small pond became more established we were blessed with a number of aquatic species of beetle, etc, previously unseen.

2003 was probably the worst year at Cowden since my association with the reserve. Prime causes for the deterioration were, undoubtedly, the longest driest summer since 1976 coupled with (in my view) overgrazing. These factors led to an invasion by creeping thistle which swamped out our more valuable sward. Devils bit scabious and betony were probably the worst, or most noticeably affected. Reptile numbers crashed dramatically due to lack of prey and loss of habitat.

Bright spots were the return of Knapweed in NG3, and with it the small skippers, the first grizzled skipper for three years, three new patches of sneezewort and a single specimen of milkwort.

Generally invertebrates (not molluscs or aquatic species) fared well, with butterfly numbers well up to usual.

Rabbits were almost absent due to myxomatosis and roe seem to have taken over from fallow deer as our most numerous wild grazer.

Flora was generally good in 2004 with all the site rarities holding their own albeit in low numbers and devils bit and betony well recovered as creeping thistle came under control. Grizzled skipper again put in a solitary appearance but butterfly numbers were generally disappointing while other invertebrate populations held up well.

Reptile numbers remain, worryingly, low despite our best efforts and rabbits were probably at an all time low for the reserve apart from early spring, when numbers seemed to be recovering a little before reducing dramatically throughout the summer.

Both fallow and roe deer were in evidence on the reserve this year.

Despite huge problems with bramble invading the open sward, 2005 was a generally stable year for most species. With the addition of around an extra eighty acres to the reserve (effectively a sevenfold increase in area), albeit on an initial lease of only eighteen months which, hopefully, may be extended to a more permanent arrangement, it became clear that much that we regard as scarce on the old reserve i.e. lousewort, grizzled skipper, etc, is quite abundant on parts of the extension. Given that a more long-term arrangement is forthcoming it will be highly worthwhile to investigate further.

Several expert recorders, visiting this year, have already extended our invertebrate lists by several hundred species, found predominantly in new areas. One interesting new resident to the old reserve is the short-winged cone-head which lends further evidence to concerns over global warming.

Bramble continued to be the major concern in 2006 and extended its strangle hold on the reserve. Unless drastic action is taken I fear all will be lost. I have little faith in the suggested therapy of cutting back in winter followed by summer grazing and personally feel that things have been allowed to progress too far for anything other than a chemical solution to be effective. I hope that I am wrong in this. Time will tell.

The loss of our briefly held extension, to a fee paying grazier, was a big disappointment. I can only hope that another opportunity will present itself in the future. Apart from the continued drought conditions, from last year, it has been a fairly average year with the levels of monitored species having generally held their own.

One interesting addition is of yellow-necked mice to our species list. These have been there all along but it was not until Mike Reed pointed out the behavioural differentiation with wood mice that I became aware of their presence.

2007 started with a continuation of the drought conditions, which have prevailed for much of the preceding two years, culminating in the driest April I have ever known, with everything looking scorched and stressed by the end of the month. This was followed by one of the biggest turnarounds ever as endless heavy rain dominated the next three months, resulting in widespread flooding across much of the middle part of the country. Things then settled down with more seasonal weather from the start of August to the end of the year.

As may be expected butterflies had a disastrous year. Less predictable perhaps was boom in reptile numbers, which returned to previous peak levels. Conditions would, of course, have favoured the main food sources of both main species i.e. slugs and frogs. Other species were fairly stable with Mike and Julie Reed confirming my previous 'probable' sighting of a water shrew with a 'proof -positive' recording beneath herps tin No 8 in August.

New recordings for the reserve were: woodcock, white campion, black-striped longhorn (beetle), Stenurella melanura (beetle), brown lipped snail, Zaraea fasciata (sawfly) and the following fungi: glistening inkcap, trumpet agaric, Hygrocybe coccineocreneta, Hygrocybe chlorophena and Russula cavipes.

Bramble, thankfully, was at last, a little less vigorous in 2007, probably due to the wet conditions, although continued management may also have played a part. Certainly the area which Paul and company cut in the summer the other year seemed to stay down, pointing to timing being of the essence. It will be interesting to see what next year brings.

Renewal of stock fencing and outbreaks of foot and mouth again meant that grazing (apart from about a month by a single horse, early on) was a non-starter.

The return to more typical if rather overcast and sunless weather in 2008 meant a resurgence of our accursed bramble problem. This time much of the reserve was unwalkable by early summer and the situation did not improve until efforts were made to clear it later in the year. The addition of a flock of twenty one Hebridean sheep in mid-July was a limited success as they browsed off the leaves from the more open pillows and sparser areas. They were less useful in controlling the denser areas. Stocking with ordinary sheep earlier in the year was, as ever, a complete failure.

If the summer was exceptional for anything it was dullness. Butterfly numbers and insects generally were low. The poor quality of the sward was doubtless another contributory factor. One high point was the identification, by Laurence Clemons on a visit in late August, of the rare tephritid Acinia corniculata. This, sadly, was our only new species for the year.

Again our reptile numbers bucked the trend and seemed to have a good year. Particularly slow-worms whose numbers shattered all previous records. In all probability the cover provided by the rampant bramble suits their needs.

Once more Mike and Julie found no Dormice this year and were unable even to find evidence of their continued presence in the form of gnawed hazelnuts. Other mammals as far as could be judged remained stable. Roe deer continue to visit the area although they have not been recorded on the actual reserve for a couple of years. One high point of the season was finding a water shrew beneath one of the herp tins, this time high up on the valley wall well away form any water.

Overall a dismal year, the worst in my association with the reserve. Much of the reserves diversity has been lost in recent years as the quality of the sward has deteriorated. With the outright purchase of the land by KWT this year it is to be hoped that secure tenure will inspire a greater commitment of resources to remedying the situation. The drawing up of a new action/management plan, after due consultation between all interested parties, as currently muted, is a worthwhile first step.

2009 could be summed up as,"see 2008 only worse". The condition of the sward was to be expected as part of the trade-off in attempting to graze out the bramble problem with the Hebridean sheep in residence throughout. The results, short term, however have been pretty catastrophic, with virtually all sectors greatly reduced in number or quality after a return to something approaching normal climatic conditions, with a real winter, an old fashioned mixed bag of a summer and a truly glorious early autumn extending well into October. Other than squat varieties such as alternate-leaved golden saxifrage, eyebright and tormentil little else managed to produce flower, due to the sheep grazing, except for pest species.

In a depressing year there were a few bright spots. A single specimen of milkwort was found growing close by the path down to the stream in NG3 and the first roe deer for a while was seen on 1st September at the top of NG2. Buzzards were heard on a few occasions at the convent end but never seen. It was, however, water shrews that made the year worthwhile with Martyn discovering single specimens under herp' tins 3 & 8 on 21st September, two under tin 7 on 8th November and a further individual under tin 2 on the 15th.