“They have achieved something really remarkable in allowing nature to regenerate itself with little intervention, and simply, for its own sake. The results prove just how resilient nature is and that given half a chance, it can not only survive but thrive. The mini-rewilding project started just 20 years ago and has produced an enormous increase in the diversity and numbers of plants and animals.” Jane King, Oxford September 2021
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 buzz phrase: natural succession.
For the newly converted ‘untidy gardener’ thankfully 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 for winter stored jams, 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 natural succession works and it provides a more complex, diverse forest ecosystem than anything man-made or man-managed can produce.
Over the 23 years of our stewardship of Dittiscombe Estate 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 raise their heads, as if by magic, when we are not 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 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 and nestled amongst the rewilded valley. For more information about Dittiscombe and to discuss a tour of the Estate call Ruth on 01548 521272, or to book a holiday visit www.dittiscombe.co.uk.
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.