We have been told – climate change is happening but can we help by doing virtually nothing in and around our own gardens and green spaces? At Dittiscombe Estate our journey of mini rewilding over 21 year has provided a wonderful diversity of habitats and new young woodlands to prove that being untidy is good for the planet!

Encouraged by gardening gurus to scarify lawns, tidy up deadwood, rake leaves and weed our borders, we’ve unwittingly been wiping out miniature worlds of biodiversity and missing an opportunity to add much needed habitats to our ecosystem. If we could relax the idea of ‘tidy’, change our perception of aesthetics in the landscape, and allow succession to happen naturally, we might add a forest of trees just by leaving a patch of scrub in our gardens.

For many decades it’s been reported that the world desperately needs more trees. One oak tree can sequester one ton of carbon from the atmosphere by the time it’s 40 years old, and supports approximately 1,000 different species! Just think of the millions of acorns one oak tree might drop over its lifetime feeding jays, deer, ducks and wood mice: the list of benefits from one beautiful oak tree goes on. But how are trees born from messy gardening you might ask?

In today’s tidy and urbanised world a patch of scrub is not usually what we like or expect to see in our own gardens or surrounding green spaces. It’s still considered an unproductive use of land, thought of as wasteland. But centuries ago it was a valuable area providing coppiced wood for sticks and brooms, furniture, fencing and tools;  berries were foraged and used for jams, jellies, hooch and medicine; and it was a prized buffer zone around woodland to prevent grazing animals eating vital new tree saplings.

So imagine scrub, or ‘thorny scrub’ as a new and important habitat for wildlife; it’s always adapting and on the move, continually changing and morphing into something new the following year. This is the exciting new buzzword: succession.

For the newly converted untidy gardener not much planning is required – just select an area of your garden and well, leave it be! Year one might start off as a little patch of mixed grasses and nettles (these on their own are a crucial larval food for peacock, red admiral and painted lady butterflies); followed in subsequent years by brambles with blackberries high in Vitamin C and an autumn food for birds. There may be thistles for the bees along the way, and perhaps fungi, ferns and foxgloves! Then gradually the thorny scrub such as blackthorn, hawthorn, elder and dog rose might appear, and with patience tree saplings – an oak or an ash – amazing! That is how succession works and it provides a more complex, diverse forest ecosystem than anything man-made or man-managed can produce.

Over the 21 years of our stewardship of Dittiscombe Hills it has, at times, been tempting to go and have a good clear up.  But in selected parts of the valley we’ve had rewilding in mind, a non-management hands-off approach: no cutting or bashing; no strimming or mowing.

Our patience has been rewarded. We’ve watched as those sterile areas of residual farmland have been transformed, slowly at first into patches of bramble and honeysuckle, ideal for hedgehogs and dormice; followed by leaf litter and deadwood filled with wrens’ nests and beetles. Through this thorny tangle a mixture of blackthorn, elder, hazel and hawthorn is now thriving.

Then the big reveal in these forgotten areas has been the appearance of oak tree saplings which raised their heads, as if by magic, when we weren’t looking! Exciting to think that these young woodlands have appeared without intervention and probably been planted from the winter larder of jays or mice.

We hope that the next generation of gardeners and land stewards will try for more enlightened non-management techniques, be untidy, leave precious patches of scrub to become, perhaps, tomorrow’s wilderness…

Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages is set in a peaceful wildlife valley near Slapton Sands beach and the South West Coast Path in South Devon. There are six holiday cottages located around the Old Farmhouse. Surrounded by the rewilded valley, which includes woodland, meadows and ponds, guests and their dogs can enjoy this beautiful, tranquil space on holiday. For more information about Dittiscombe and to book a holiday cottage go to www.dittiscombe.co.uk or call Ruth & Jon on 01548 521272.

This blog was inspired by Isabella Tree who spoke at the Ways with Words festival at Dartington Hall in July 2019 and her wonderful book Wilding: the return of nature to a British farm published by Picador.

Rewilding at Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages
Rewilding at Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages
Rewilding at Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages
Rewilding at Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages
Rewilding at Dittiscombe Hills Estate & Cottages