Nature conservation has been at the heart of Dittiscombe Estate & Cottages since it was purchased by Ruth and Jon Saunders in 1998. In the 1930s Dittiscombe was a significant farm of 500 acres. After the Second World War, when the area was evacuated due to D-day landing practices at Start Bay, the farm gradually fell into disrepair.
In the 1980s the farm buildings were converted to holiday cottages and since 1998 the residual farmland of 20 acres has been gifted back to nature, or for some that might mean rewilding, using minimal intervention and management.
Dittiscombe Estate is now a diverse landscape with many wildlife habitats: cottage gardens, ponds and bogs, scrapes and silt traps, streams and rills, woodland and hazel coppice, hedgerows and meadows. This is all managed by as a sanctuary for local species, migrating birds and insects, and for the enjoyment of ourselves and our visiting guests.
Read Ruth’s blogs about the Dittiscombe rewilding journey and about Small-scale rewilding at Dittiscombe.
Dittiscombe Nature Trail
A number of mown grass paths which meander past the stream-fed ponds and through the woodland and meadows will unveil a valley filled with a variety of habitats and bird song. The paths lead to:
The Woodland & Hazel Wood
The main woodland was planted about 23 years ago with over 1,000 native deciduous trees and some evergreens. With a mixture of fast growing trees like larch and pine, and slower growing trees such as Oak and Beech, the differing canopies and tree heights offer varied feeding, nesting and sheltering opportunities for all types of wildlife.
The wood, after a relatively short time, is now a home or resting place for many new species to the valley – roe deer, woodcock, jays, tawny owls, cuckoo, long-tailed tits, blackcaps and willow warblers to name just a few.
The woodland floor (the understory) is naturally filling in with young elder and spindleberry, cherry saplings, brambles and ferns. The bramble, a much maligned plant, are a good supply of late summer nectar for the bees, and food in the autumn for birds and mammals.
With natural thinning and storm damage we are able to cut and store some logs for use in the cottage log-burners. We leave cut branches and some coppiced stems, brash piles and messy areas to provide important shelter for reptiles, rabbits and other mammals.
In 2018 the Hazel Wood was coppiced by a volunteer team from the Woodland Trust. More warmth and light in this wood makes it a magnet for butterflies and bats who prefer the open space for hunting. The new plant and shrub growth around the coppicing provides diversity and height, offering food and nesting sites for mammals such as beetles and reptiles, stoats and weasels, wood mice and dormice.
In 2019 a new small woodland was planted by our local friends in the higher valley at Dittiscombe Estate, adding to an already established area of thorny scrub. Around 200 trees were planted – wild cherry, hawthorn, oak, rowan (mountain ash) and downy birch.
Some years ago the orchard above Dovecote and Buddleia cottages was re-instated with several local varieties of eating, cider and cooking apples. In bountiful years our cider apples are collected and supplied to Heron Valley Cider who make a variety of dry, medium and sparkling ciders for sale locally and nationally. Our dessert and cooking apples are available to guests free of charge, usually in September and October.
It’s in this area that we hear the whitethroats, who have travelled probably from as far as Africa, to raise a brood in the scrub around the orchard.
Guests can wander through the orchard which offers lovely views of the valley and a glimpse of the sea at Bolt Tail with the estuary town of Salcombe seen perched on the side of the hill.
The Ponds & Streams
There are several spring-fed ponds connected by a small stream which runs through the valley. Guests can stroll around the nature trail which meanders past the ponds, with benches and seats along the way to view the wildlife which is attracted to these areas. Little grebes, mallards and moorhens, damselflies, emperor dragonflies, grass snakes and butterflies use the surrounding vegetation for protection, for food and as nesting sites.
The ‘top’ pond (just below The Owlery) is visited by many moths and butterflies during the summer months. By the ‘middle’ pond the statue of the Dittiscombe Angler waits for his fish, and guests can sit under the weeping birch listening to the birdsong and enjoy the rhododendrons, spirea and bottlebrush around the edges. With a wide open space of water, the ‘lower’ wildlife pond is a great source of insect food for martins, swallows and bats, and is surrounded with willows and alders, giving shade and protection to the wildfowl.
This is an important area of conservation as unimproved grassland is becoming rare. There are several areas of grassland, meadows and marshland which follow the natural watercourse of the valley, and guests are welcome to explore these. The wet grassy areas near the streams are home to frogs, toads, and grass snakes, and the marsh thistles, wild angelica and hogweed, which follow the watercourse, make a dramatic display in the summer, attracting beetles and hoverflies.
Using a wildlife friendly grass cutting regime, which usually means cutting less often and only at the right time, we hope to attract different species of bees, butterflies, moths, finches and buntings, crickets, grasshoppers and glow worms.
Although we haven’t measured them we believe there may be several miles of hedgerow at Dittiscombe! We have the traditional type of Devon hedgerow which is a mostly thorny hedge planted on top of a bank. This vital ecosystem provides food, shelter, nesting sites, and a transport system for many species. We cut our hedges on a rotational system in Winter, leaving berries and small insects for the birds for as long as possible.
The ‘bat corridor’ which runs between the cottages and a high hedge with occasional trees, is a perfect place to watch bats sourcing food during the summer months.
Read about the wonderful world of South Devon Hedgerows in Ruth’s Blog.
Old Stone Barns & Walls
The walls of the stone barns are very attractive to many animals: there are many small holes for solitary bees; the moths, butterflies and dragonflies love to warm up on the heat they retain; and very small birds such as wrens enjoy the insects which hide in the lime mortar. The ‘old barn’ and various other ruins have been left in place and these buildings offer shelter and nesting sites for Jackdaws, Bats, Pied Wagtails, nesting Swallows, hedgehogs, and many insects.
Our thanks to Christian Cook for his wonderful sketch of the old barn and stone cottages observed from the higher valley in August 2021.
Nature Further Afield
Dittiscombe Estate is a 10-minute drive or a 50-minute walk from the nearest village of Slapton.
The winding lanes (drivers take note!) and pretty cottages with roses round the door are typical of this type of South Hams village. But what sets Slapton apart from any other is its proximity to Slapton Ley National Nature Reserve. This large freshwater lagoon sits behind a shingle bar, protected from the salty water of the sea and is of national scientific importance, managed by Slapton Field Study Centre which is located in the centre of the village. The Ley also provides a wonderful opportunity to see bird migrations in the Autumn, and the spectacle of Starling murmurations in the Winter.
The ‘do it yourself’ Slapton Ley nature trail starts just outside the Field Centre and takes you via paths and boardwalks, past reedbeds and open water, through woodland, stopping now and then at information points and bird hides, where you finally emerge at Slapton ‘bridge’. A short hop over the road and you are at Slapton Sands beach which stretches in both directions, east towards Strete Gate and west towards Start Point – in all about 3 miles long! How many different eco-systems (diverse habitats) could you find anywhere else in one marvellous walk!
Walk to Slapton from Dittiscombe
If you’d like to take the walk from your cottage door down to Slapton and around the Ley there is a map with written directions in the cottage file. The walk may take you several hours in total, so please allow plenty of time to look at the hedgerows and views on the way down, and to get back up the hill on the way home!
The Cottage Gardens
Each of the six cottages has a private garden with a lawn, hedges, stone walls, pots, baskets and borders. The borders are filled with shrubs, perennials and bulbs to provide colour and interest all year round. Hedges and stone walls surround the cottages, with navelwort and red valerian making lovely displays in the spring and summer. Rockeries are dotted around the cottages showing off the hot colours of poppies and kniphofia, and the subtler shades of lavenders, hebes and geraniums.
You can see lots of photos of our valley in the gallery, and more detailed descriptions of each garden on individual cottages pages.
Local Gardens of the South Hams
Further afield there are several National Trust Houses & Gardens to visit such as: Greenway, ‘the loveliest place in the world’, originally owned by Agatha Christie, is now open to the public; Coleton Fishacre near Kingswear, is a garden by the sea, with an Arts & Crafts-style house (you can read Ruth’s blog about her recent visit); Overbeck’s is a luxuriant coastal garden overlooking the Salcombe estuary and surrounds an elegant Edwardian house with diverse collections; and Saltram near Plymouth is a magnificent Georgian house with opulent Robert Adam interiors, gardens, follies and landscape parkland.
Also of interest is Dartington Hall Gardens near Totnes, planted with great trees and connecting paths which meander through the mature woodland and past a number of sculptural features including a reclining figure by Henry Moore.
Avon Mill Garden Centre is a favourite of our returning guests. It is situated by the banks of the river, in the peaceful Avon Valley near Loddiswell. Visitors can choose from a wide range of plants, then drop into the cafe and delicatessen. There is also a wonderful scenic woodland walk from the centre which follows the old mill leat and Primrose Line Railway alongside the Avon River.